The Russian Revolution is a vast subject. An exhaustive analysis of it is beyond the scope of this writing. But below, some of the key points will be highlighted.
The Russian Revolution took place in the background of World War I, a war between imperialist powers over control of territories and colonies. The war caused a split in the international socialist movement. Right up to the outbreak of the war, the parties of the Second International had vowed to fight against the war once it started. Socialist parties had pledged to oppose sending workers of the warring countries to kill each other and die for their respective bourgeoisies, the capitalist class.
But when the war started, nearly all of these parties collapsed in the face of the war hysteria in their respective countries and ended up supporting the war. Only the Bolshevik party, one of the socialist parties in Russia, and a small party in Serbia took a strong position against the war. The five Bolshevik members of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, were sent into exile in Serbia for their position. The Bolsheviks were forced to go completely underground, and faced a new period of isolation and persecution when the war started.
Rather than capitulating to the war hysteria, the Bolsheviks called for “revolutionary defeatism.” Their position was that the workers of every belligerent country should call for the defeat of their own ruling class. They called for socialist agitators in the armies to encourage fraternization between the soldiers of warring sides to discuss their common interest in ending the war and stopping killing each other.
Lenin also called for turning the imperialist war into a civil war; in other words to turn this imperialist war between nations into a war between classes and against the capitalists. These positions were considered quite bold, to put it mildly, even by other anti-war socialists, or internationalists as they were known. Lenin was considered to be the extreme of the extreme at the time.
Over the following two and a half years, millions of soldiers and civilians died in the bloodiest and most destructive war in history up to that point. The Russian Empire suffered huge casualties. Its army was made up mainly of peasants, as was the population as a whole – nearly 90% peasants. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in single battles. Famines and epidemics spread.
On Feb. 23, 1917 (on the old calendar still used in Russia), March 8 on the modern calendar, International Women’s Day, a strike of woman textile workers in Petrograd was called. Petrograd, later named Leningrad and today called St. Petersburg, was the capital and the center of industry. The strike spread like wildfire. The war years of death, disease and deprivation for the workers and peasants, while the czar, the nobility and the rising bourgeoisie lived in almost indescribable luxury, now brought forth an explosion of revolutionary anger that was unstoppable. It was a spontaneous uprising – no organization or party had planned or organized it. But it was strongly influenced by decades of revolutionary work and experiences, especially the experience of the working class in the 1905-06 revolution.
The February Revolution
Organizers and agitators among the workers, many of whom were experienced grassroots activists, were able to go among the soldiers in the army units in Petrograd and win them over so that they would not fire on the workers. To the authorities this was a shock, a key element in the success of the February revolution. Leon Trotsky, in his book The History of the Russian Revolution, describes in great detail this process of winning over the soldiers and the tactics that were required.
Trotsky’s book shows that this is not merely a process of discussion, but that the discussion has to be combined with showing the strength, determination and seriousness of the workers’ movement and demonstrating that the movement is committed to go all the way with the revolution. This was necessary because even though the soldiers were workers, peasants and poor people themselves, they knew that to disobey the officers’ orders in a battle when they were facing the “enemy,” even when that enemy was their own people, could often mean being shot on the spot or facing a firing squad later. And for the revolution to win, it was absolutely essential to split the army, to win over or neutralize large sections of it.
Trotsky pointed out that it was only by engaging in the struggle that it was possible to know if the workers could win over the army, or parts of it. This is a lesson that can be applied to all real struggles. It is not merely an arithmetic calculation of adding up the numbers of both sides. If that were the case, the czar’s side would have won in the February Revolution. The army had the weapons, firepower, the military training and the logistics all on its side. But in the course of the struggle itself, the consciousness of the soldiers (and the workers too in a different way) goes through a transformation, which can radically alter the arithmetic, not to mention which way the guns are pointed. This transformation is actually what happened.
Trotsky also showed that the workers of Petrograd made no efforts to win over the police. From the many battles they had had with them, the workers knew the police to be their brutal, sworn enemy – the true hired thugs of the state, the czar and the capitalists. The workers had to defeat the police in the streets to win. To do this, they needed, and received, the help of some army units. So the workers won over these army units not only not to shoot at them, but to shoot at the police. This was a very important stage in the revolution.
The workers also needed defecting units of the army to defeat those elements that remained loyal. For example, the military school cadets, the future officers, were drawn primarily from the upper classes. They held out longer than other elements in the army and had to be defeated and neutralized.
In just five days in February, this explosion of revolutionary anger swept away a monarchy that had lasted for centuries. From Petrograd, the revolution spread quickly, first to Moscow, and then across this gigantic country – Russia has 11 time zones, compared to 4 in the U.S. It was a truly stunning development. The revolution began to spread to the countryside among the peasants, the great majority of whom were very poor. The very fact of the war, during which the sons of peasant families were drafted into the army, brought the peasants into contact with the cities, the workers and politics more than ever before.
Revolutions unleash a previously unimagined energy, the suppressed and curtailed energy and creativity of the masses. Due to the alienation created by capitalism, racism, sexism, anti-LGBT oppression, discrimination based on class, income and disability, an enormous amount of human potential is lost. This is one of the greatest crimes of capitalism. Almost all working-class youth, especially those from oppressed nationalities, are denied opportunities in a million and one ways and from a very early age by a society that is governed by the one law that counts – the profit motive.
A revolution unleashes this suppressed energy and curtailed creativity in a positive direction. It almost seems like a thermonuclear reaction, when the outcome is apparently incompatible with the materials that started out the process. When the oppressed classes feel that this is their chance, the response can seem amazing. This is the underlying reason why revolutions facing overwhelming odds – as in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea and elsewhere – have been able to survive and triumph.
In late 1917, Lenin wrote: “Every revolution means a sudden break in the lives of the great masses of people. Unless such a break matures, no real revolution can take place. And, just as every break in the life of an individual teaches him or her something, causes new experiences and new sensations, so a revolution imparts to the whole people in a short time lessons of great import and value. In revolutionary epochs, millions and tens of millions of people learn more in a week than in a year of ordinary existence. Such periods show with exceptional clarity which classes exist and what ends they pursue.”
With the unexpected triumph of the February revolution, the capitalist liberals stepped forward. An exploiter class, the Russian capitalist class had until this point been a junior partner to the czarist aristocracy, the nobility that held state power in its hands. The capitalist class had not been the ruling class. The Russian capitalists had failed to take power in the 1905 revolution. They were, as Lenin often scornfully remarked, “a timid lot.” In 1905, the capitalists had happily compromised with the czar and his state because of their fear of the workers, who were in motion at the time. The source of their timidity was their weakness as a class, economically and politically. A large part of the capital that exploited the workers in the Russian empire was not Russian-owned. Many of the great modern factories were imported and owned by French, German, English and other transnational corporations of the day.
Of course, the Russian bourgeoisie, despite all its weaknesses, wanted to be the ruling class. And like earlier revolutions – e.g. France, England and others – the working class had done the fighting and dying, but was not yet prepared to take power in the name of its class. It seemed that the Russian capitalist class’ day had come. And it had. But it was going to be like a winter day in the Arctic Circle – very short. Unfortunately, after the overthrow of the Soviet Union, today the Russian bourgeoisie is having second shot, with the workers suffering catastrophic consequences.
The Provisional Government
A provisional government was set up, dominated by the Constitutional Democratic Party, known as the Cadets. The first prime minister was Miliukov, who like many other Cadets really wanted to have a constitutional monarchy, like England’s. They wanted to be in charge of running the government, but in alliance with the nobility and with a czar for the benefit of the masses. Monarchs can be great diversions (like Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton) and the bourgeoisie can have them take emergency measures if “democracy” gets out of hand.
The provisional government was capitalist and imperialist, but it was very new and not very strong. And there was another institution, which rose almost immediately and had authority. This authority was looked to by workers and increasingly by soldiers and sailors, whom Lenin referred to as “peasants in uniform,” and the peasantry as a whole. Soon after the February 1917 victory, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, later called the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, was established, or really re-established. The soviets (councils) had been established by the workers in 1905. The workers from different factories and workplaces and military units elected representatives to the Petrograd soviets. The soviets quickly spread all over the country.
Soon, the local soviets elected representatives to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which reflected the strength of the different political parties within it. They met in the Smolny Institute, and they took it over almost immediately. The Smolny Institute was a school where young women from aristocracy received their training. The walls of the institute had been decorated with the czarist eagles, which were promptly broken off after the February revolution. You could no longer find any eagles on display anywhere in Petrograd.
John Reed, who wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, describes what was going on inside the Smolny Institute when he went there to visit. He describes the hallways that had all the broken-off eagles, the offices of all the political parties and the cafeterias with high piles of literature. People were constantly running down the hallways, carrying piles of newspapers and flyers, more literature than they could really carry. And up in the cafeteria, which used to be a very elegant setting, there were workers and peasants from all over Russia.
The old ruling class, and even the intellectuals of the time who wrote about it, could not believe this was happening. The halls and meeting rooms of this aristocratic institution were now filled with workers and poor peasants. As the Bolshevik influence became stronger over the spring, summer and fall, the make-up of the soviets became poorer because of who the Bolsheviks represented in society.
Reed describes the incredible hunger for literature that developed with the revolution. He describes going to the front and into the trenches at one point, where he met soldiers who looked starved and emaciated. Soldiers who had been in these horrible trenches for a long time would ask him, “did you bring anything to read?” Not “did you bring anything to eat,” but “did you bring anything to read?” Reed said that this was characteristic of the people in general and that the number one want the people had when the revolution started was to have material to read.
From February to October in the old calendar, corresponding to March to November in the modern calendar, these two seats of power would exist side by side, the provisional government and the soviet. As Lenin described it, this was a situation of “dual power,” two competing centers of power in the same country. When a dual power situation arises in history during a revolutionary period, and it is rare that it does, it is temporary and short-lived. One side wins and disperses the other center of power.
It was not surprising that the Russian bourgeoisie was celebrating that its turn to rule had come. But it is startling to know that the majority of those who called themselves socialists or even Marxists in February 1917 agreed with them. They agreed that it was time for the bourgeoisie to take power and rule in Russia.
At the beginning, the majority in the soviets were supporters of one of two parties, both of which called themselves socialists. But these two parties were really liberals or social democrats, not revolutionary socialists. One was the Mensheviks, moderate socialists who, for the most part, had supported the imperialist war. The other was the Socialist Revolutionaries, the SRs, a peasant-based party whose main focus was land reform within the confines of capitalism. Not only did both these parties support the provisional government, they soon joined it and had ministers in it. The Mensheviks and the SRs pursued a policy of pressuring the provisional government to take into account the needs of the workers and peasants. The provisional government needed their support to strengthen itself because it was quite weak.
Despite their claim to represent the whole peasantry, the SRs were really a party that represented the better-off peasants. Both the SRs and the Mensheviks supported the bourgeois provisional government in its announced plans to meet all of the czarist government’s treaty obligations. This was significant in that it meant continuing Russia’s participation in the war, honoring its treaties with France and England. Now the United States was about to enter the war on the side of France, England and Russia against Germany, Austria and Turkey.
At the time of the February revolution, compared to the Mensheviks and the SRs, the Bolsheviks, who had been the most suppressed party due to their revolutionary stand against the war, were far behind in organization and resources. They were the smallest of the three main parties in the soviets in the early period of the revolution. There were also other smaller groups, like one led by Trotsky called the Unified Social Democrats, which would soon merge with the Bolsheviks, as well as independent deputies to the soviets.
The Mensheviks and the SRs took the position that, from a Marxist point of view, it was now time for the capitalist class to assume power in Russia for an extended period of time. Until Lenin’s return from exile, this position was also held by many of the Bolsheviks as well. This was a schematic application of the general Marxist historical view that after feudalism comes capitalism, and then comes socialism. Of course, it would be impossible to conceive of a successful working class seizure of power for socialism if there was no capitalist development and therefore no working class, like the situation in France in 1789. As radical as the French Revolution was, the material conditions did not exist for it to become a socialist revolution.
But that was not the case in 1917. Industry had grown rapidly. The working class was still a minority but it occupied a strategic position in society. The working class was strong and politicized. The Russian capitalist class was weak and politically timid. It was subservient to European capital and still seeking an alliance with the overthrown nobility, possibly as a constitutional monarchy.
Nevertheless, there was a strong view in the socialist movement that a prolonged period of capitalist rule was inevitable and that the position of the socialists should be to give critical support to the provisional government. The Mensheviks and the SRs soon joined the coalition government. And the Bolsheviks, in March 1917, a month after the revolution, under the leadership of Stalin and Kamenev, the top leadership in the country, in Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, expressed support for the provisional government “so far as it moves along the path of satisfying the working class and revolutionary peasantry.” This policy of “pressure,” as it was called, implied that the provisional government could indeed satisfy the needs of the workers and peasants.
Lenin Returns to Russia
On April 3, 1917, Lenin, Zinoviev and other leaders arrived in a sealed car on a train. The German government allowed them to return to Russia across Germany and through German-held territory because it hoped that they would take Russia out of the war and relieve the pressure on Germany – that was explicitly the German government’s reason.
E. H. Carr, an English historian wrote a tremendous 14-volume history of the Bolshevik Revolution. Here is how Carr describes the scene of Lenin’s return:
Alexander Kollontai produced a bouquet which Lenin carried awkwardly: and the party proceeded to the former imperial waiting room. Here, Lenin was officially welcomed by Chkheidze, the president of the Petrograd soviet, who, in a few carefully chosen words, expressed his hopes for ‘a closing of the ranks of democracy’ in defense of ‘our revolution.’ Lenin, turning vaguely away from the official party towards the assembled crowds outside, addressed them as ‘dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers,’ greeted in their persons ‘the victorious Russian revolution,’ declared that the ‘robber imperialist war’ was the beginning of civil war all over Europe, and concluded:
‘Any day, if not today or tomorrow, the crash of the whole of European imperialism may come. The Russian revolution, made by you, has begun it and opened a new epoch. Hail the worldwide socialist revolution.’
As Sukhanov notes, it was not a reply to Chkheidze. It did not even fit ‘the context’ of the Russian revolution as understood by all without exception who had witnessed it or taken part in it.’ Lenin had spoken; and his first words had been not of the bourgeois, but of the socialist, revolution.
On the square outside the station, there was a mass demonstration of Bolsheviks headed by an armored car carrying the banner of the party. Lenin, standing on the armored car, addressed the cheering crowds in similar terms and, later on the same evening, spoke for two hours to a party audience at party headquarters. The slowly mounting astonishment with which his words were received by the other party leaders was described by an eyewitness ten years later:
‘It had been expected that Vladimir Illich would arrive and call to order the Russian bureau of the central committee and especially comrade Molotov, who occupied a particularly irreconcilable position in regards to the provisional government. As it turned out, however, it was Molotov who was nearest of all to Illich.’
Lenin’s call for a revolutionary state
Lenin’s position was a surprise, a big surprise. He produced a document that is very famous, The April Thesis, which basically asked and answered the question: What should the position of the Bolshevik Party be from this point forward? And he put forth this position: first, the war is a predatory imperialist war on Russia’s part, and it will be so as long there is this provisional government, a bourgeois government. It is not a revolutionary government. And as long as there is a capitalist government, because of the inseparable connection between capitalism and imperialism, and capitalism and imperialist war, this is an imperialist government and we regard it as such. Lenin said that the Bolsheviks could justify continuing a war only if the power was in the hands of workers and peasants; in other words, if it is a completely different kind of state. To step this up, Lenin called for fraternization and more connection between the soldiers of the different armies.
Secondly, Lenin said that they were passing from one stage to the second stage of the revolution; passing from the first stage, “which owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organization of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, to the second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorer section of the peasants.” He argued: “Russia is now the freest country in the world” of all the warring countries. This was true. Russia was much freer than the United States, which at the time was supposed to be the bastion of democracy in terms of what people could do, what they could say and how they could organize. And he said that the importance of the party is heightened because the large mass of proletarians had just awakened to political life in an unprecedented way.
Third, Lenin said, that the Bolsheviks do not support this provisional government at all. This was completely different from what even most in his own party had been saying. “We should expose the fact, in place of these illusion-breeding ideas” that this government of capitalists could possibly cease to be an imperialist government. It cannot. Lenin acknowledged that the Bolsheviks were a minority, a small minority and that they would have to act from that point of view. But he said that only the soviets of people’s deputies could be a revolutionary government. That was the only possibility for a truly revolutionary government.
Lessons from the Paris Commune
Lenin called for a new type of state to replace the provisional government, and for the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy. He said that the salaries of all officials should not exceed the average wage of workers, and that all officials who are elected should be recallable, not elected for two years or six months or four years or whatever, but always recallable by those who have elected them. This directly came out of the experience of the Paris Commune.
Lenin called for the nationalization of all the land; for the confiscation of big estates and; interestingly enough, for setting up model farms. This idea is quite interesting in that model farms had never existed before. It was not just breaking up the old landed estates and dispersing the land, he said, but having model farms where the poorest peasants and agricultural laborers could run with support from the state. This was really the idea of collective farms or state farms.
Lenin called for the nationalization of all the banks and consolidation in one bank. He said that workers have to bring all production and all distribution of products under the control of the soviets. He called for a change in the name of the party from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party to the Communist Party. He called for the creation of a new International.
Now, this is a very wide-ranging program for someone who has just arrived. But above all, Lenin said, that they could not do it right at that time. He recognized that the Bolsheviks were in no position to call for the overthrow of the provisional government because they were not strong enough. But, Lenin thought, the whole orientation of the party should be the idea of all power to the soviets and making the soviets the government.
Two days after arrival, when Lenin took his ideas to the first party meeting he attended, the meeting of the Petrograd committee of the party, the vote was 13 to 2 against him. Only Alexandra Kollontai, a leading woman member of the Bolshevik party, and Lenin voted in favor of his position. But Lenin eventually won over the party. He wrote: “There cannot be two powers in the state. Dual power is transitional. The provisional government is the government of the bourgeoisie. The soviets are the emerging dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” He emphasized that the provisional government represented the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
E. H. Carr wrote that on April 14, at the Petrograd conference, all the members of the party came together. And then, 10 days later, on April 24, when the Bolsheviks were able to hold an all-Russian conference of the party, there was a lot of opposition. At the beginning of both meetings, Lenin was in the minority. But by the end, his position won out strongly. “How did this happen?” historian Carr asks. And Carr answers: “The proceedings again demonstrate Lenin’s immense power over the party, a power resting not on rhetoric, but on clear-headed and incisive arguments conveying an irresistible impression of a unique mastery of the situation.”
In other words, Lenin won them over politically. This was not some kind of a cult experience. Lenin explained politically what was going on in a way that, it has to be said, no one else understood. This raises a very interesting question, which has been discussed a lot, about the role of individuals in history. And Lenin’s role has probably been the greatest subject of that discussion.
All Russian Congress of Soviets
In May and June there were conferences, conferences and conferences. This was a revolutionary period. In June there was the first All Russian Congress of Soviets. It was a serious discussion. It lasted three weeks. There were 822 delegates. The SRs had 285, the Mensheviks 248 and the Bolsheviks 105. So, only about 12% of the delegates were Bolsheviks. But historically it is widely acknowledged that the most dramatic moment of this conference was when Tsereteli, who was the Menshevik minister of telegraph and post office, got up and made a speech and said: “At the present there is no political party which would say, give the power to our hands. Go away, we will take your place,” referring to the coalition government. “There is no such party in Russia.”
From his seat in the audience, Lenin shouted out, “There is.” This is considered one of the turning points, because afterwards Lenin got up and spoke about why the Bolsheviks were prepared to do that. A couple of months later, in a pamphlet called Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? Lenin went back to this incident. Carr calls this incident a “declaration of war” by the Bolsheviks on the provisional government. In recalling this, Lenin said: “I still maintain that a political party would have no right to exist, would be unworthy of the name of party, would be a nonentity in any sense, if it refused to take power when opportunity offers.” Of course, opportunity did not really offer yet, but Lenin said that they were willing to take state power.
In the middle of June, Trotsky and a group of about 4,000 joined the Bolshevik Party. Kerensky, now the foreign minister in the provisional government, supposedly a socialist too, announced plans to step up the war. Up until this point, there was not much happening in terms of Russia’s war effort. But Kerensky announced: “In keeping with our treaty obligations, we will send the army into battle against the Germans.” This caused a great deal of discontent in the country. A few days later, there was a demonstration called “Long Live the Soviets.” It was called by all the soviets, in which the Mensheviks and the SRs were still the majority. But 90% of the banners in the demonstration were Bolshevik banners, with Bolshevik slogans.
The July Days
On July 1, the provisional government launched a military offensive and the Russian army was sent into battle again. The army got smashed and this caused a big uproar. Word came back from the front really fast and there were huge casualties. The news of the new offensive, even before word of the results of the battle had reached people, triggered demonstrations by the workers in Petrograd. In mass demonstrations, half a million workers came out, many of them armed and coming out for the soviets. It was on the verge of becoming an insurrection. The Bolsheviks felt, and correctly so, that the workers were not ready for this demonstration; they were not ready for an insurrection yet. But the Bolsheviks decided that since the workers were going to the streets, and these were the most militant workers, they had to go with them into the demonstrations.
After two days of demonstrations, the government brought in loyal elements of the army and, for the first time, opened fire on the workers. The Bolsheviks knew that if the workers went out on a third day of demonstrating, there would be a slaughter. They were able to prevent it from happening. It was a setback for the revolution. Up until July of 1917, everything had been moving forward. Everything had seemingly gone in one direction. But now there was a setback. The most important thing, however, was that there was not a massacre. There was not a huge slaughter of the most revolutionary elements.
But the Bolsheviks were driven underground again. Trotsky and others were arrested; Lenin had to go into hiding. Lenin was hidden by workers in a remote working-class suburb of Petrograd from then until the time of the October revolution. Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, was suppressed. But despite this, support for the Bolsheviks now began to increase and support for the other parties began to go down because they had not participated. The Mensheviks and the SRs had not participated in this big demonstration of the most militant workers. And the war was going on again.
It was still a down period. The lowest point of the period was when a reactionary general named Kornilov, with the knowledge of some of the leaders of the provisional government, launched an attack. Kornilov gathered a reactionary army to attack Petrograd, the seat of the revolution, to try to smash the revolution. Others in the coalition government had to go to the Bolsheviks, as much as they hated to do so, to ask for help. They knew of the Bolsheviks’ growing support among the most militant workers. In other words, they needed help from those who would really fight. So these parties in the coalition government went to the Bolsheviks and said: “We need your help, and we have got to end this period.” And the Bolsheviks said: “OK, we will help you.”
Bolsheviks become the majority
Later, Lenin described this rescue as being similar to the way “a rope saves a hanging man” from hitting the ground. The Bolsheviks organized the red guards, detachments of workers who went out to confront Kornilov’s forces. But there was never any shooting. When the red guards went out, Kornilov’s forces ran. They just fled. So now, the Bolsheviks’ standing and their prestige, which had already been growing, soared. They had been a small minority in the main soviets, but now, for the first time, in September, the Bolsheviks became the majority of those elected as deputies for the Petrograd, Moscow and other soviets. Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd soviet – the most important soviet and the head of the whole revolution.
Lenin, who was still in hiding, called for the party to begin preparing for insurrection and to organize for the seizure of power. Developments had now created a power vacuum. The provisional government had lost credibility. The masses of people were just sick of the provisional government. They were sick of the war; they were sick of hunger; they were sick of being sick, epidemics brought about by poverty, hunger and the war.
At the front, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were voting with their feet. They were deserting the army. They were either going to the cities to join the revolution or going home to the countryside, where many of them became agents of revolutionary change among the peasantry – this was to become a very important element. In the countryside, the number of seizures of big estates – plantations and latifundia, huge feudal estates with labor in a state of virtual servitude – doubled every month, from June to July, July to August, August to September and September to October.
Bolshevik Policy in the Countryside
The Bolsheviks were relatively weak in the countryside among the peasantry. They had always been in the cities; they spent most of their existence underground and going out into the country had been hard for them. They were mainly a workers’ party, but the peasants made up a huge majority of the population. The SRs (Socialist Revolutionaries) were the main party in the countryside. The relationship between the peasants (farmers and agricultural workers) to the workers in the cities was a key issue.
Based on an analysis, for a long time, the Bolsheviks distinguished between the rich peasants, called “kulaks” in Russian, the middle peasants, the poor peasants and agricultural laborers. The kulaks employed labor, exploited labor and owned large plots of land. The middle peasants owned land and basically had enough to live on. And the poor peasants, the majority, lived on plots of land inherited from feudalism that were too small to live on. They were constantly going under, starving to death, had their children starve and lived in destitute. Agricultural laborers were a growing sector in the countryside. They were poor peasants who had lost their land altogether and were really proletarians in the countryside. The Bolsheviks distinguished between these different layers and their strategy was to fight the kulaks, neutralize the middle strata, and win over the poor peasants and agricultural laborers.
Even though they were not supposed to be the peasant party, the Bolsheviks were the only ones who, all through the revolution, from the beginning, openly supported the peasants’ seizing the big estates without compensation. Even the SRs took a position against the land seizures, stating that they would have to wait until there is a constituent assembly, draw up the proper legislation and assure the land owners of how much they would be compensated. The Bolshevik stated that it was the right of the poor peasants to take the land, the big estates. But the SR leadership, while claiming to represent all the peasants, really represented the interests of the better off layers – the capitalist farmers and aspiring capitalist farmers.
Because of their policy, the Bolsheviks caused the SR party to split. The left wing of the SRs, which was more political, more leftist and more based on the poorer peasantry, split from the SRs. Eventually, the left SRs came together with the Bolsheviks for a period of time and formed a government after the October revolution.
Lenin understood the question of the peasantry partly from his own personal experiences. He grew up in an agricultural area and as a youth he interacted with peasants to understand their situation. Around 1890, when Lenin was about 20 years old, he met somebody with whom he had a major discussion, arguing over what life was like in the countryside. Before Lenin left for the university to attend law school, Lenin talked this person into going out and surveying 200 peasant families and writing him about it.
Farmers are small, or petit-bourgeois. Since they own their means of production, their consciousness tends to take them in a capitalist direction. Lenin understood, through his experience and studies, that the small and poor peasants, and of course the agricultural laborers, had no hope under capitalism. They could only be crushed, exploited and forced to lose their land. This was the Bolsheviks’ main orientation toward them.
As mentioned earlier, as a way of getting out of this life of 19-hour work days and abject poverty, Lenin called for setting up model farms. At the same time though, being realistic, he supported the breakup of the big plantations and the division of the land among the peasants who demanded it. If the revolution was to succeed in such a peasant-dominated country, there had to be an alliance between the workers and the poor peasants. Lenin’s line was to show that the future for the small peasants was with the workers and with socialism. That was really the only course the peasants had that offered hope.
In 1917, Lenin wrote, “for the past 20 years, there has run through the whole political history of Russia, like a red thread, the question of whether the working class is to lead the peasants forward to socialism, or whether the liberal bourgeoisie is to drag them back into a compromise with capitalism.”
Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?
On October 1, 1917, Lenin finished the pamphlet titled Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? Now, that is a very interesting title for a pamphlet written when the Bolsheviks have not seized state power yet. This was written about 25 days before the insurrection took place. But Lenin was confident that they would.
In the pamphlet, Lenin wrote that “all of the trends are agreed, from the liberal capitalists to the Mensheviks, that the Bolsheviks will either never dare take over full state power alone, or, if they do that, and do take power, they will not be able to retain it, even for the shortest while.” And then Lenin discussed some of the reasons for this perception. They said that the proletariat was too isolated from other classes, isolated from the real life forces of democracy. They said that it would not be able to lay hold of the state apparatus, that it would not be able to set the state apparatus in motion, that it was impractical for them to do so, and so on.
In addition to that we have a “magic way” to enlarge our state apparatus tenfold at once, at one stroke, a way which no capitalist state ever possessed or could possess. This magic way is to draw the working people, to draw the poor, into the daily work of state administration.
To explain how easy it will be to employ this magic way and how faultlessly it will operate, let us take the simplest and most striking example possible.
The state is to forcibly evict a certain family from a flat and move another in. This often happens in the capitalist state, and it will also happen in our proletarian or socialist state.
The capitalist state evicts a working-class family which has lost its breadwinner and cannot pay the rent. The bailiff appears with police, or militia, a whole squad of them. To effect an eviction in a working-class district, a whole detachment of Cossacks is required. Why? Because the bailiff and the militiaman refuse to go without a very strong military guard. They know that the scene of an eviction arouses such fury among the neighbors, among thousands and thousands of people who have been driven to the verge of desperation, arouses such hatred towards the capitalists and the capitalist state, that the bailiff and the squad of militiamen run the risk of being torn to pieces at any minute. Large military forces are required, several regiments must be brought into a big city, and the troops must come from some distant, outlying region so that the soldiers will not be familiar with the life of the urban poor, so that the soldiers will not be “infected” with socialism.
The proletarian state has to forcibly move a very poor family into a rich man’s flat. Let us suppose that our squad of workers’ militia is fifteen strong: two sailors, two soldiers, two class-conscious workers (of whom, let us suppose, only one is a member of our Party, or a sympathizer), one intellectual, and eight from the poor working people, of whom at least five must be women, domestic servants, unskilled laborers, and so forth. The squad arrives at the rich man’s flat, inspects it and finds that it consists of five rooms occupied by two men and two women–‘You must squeeze up a bit into two rooms this winter, citizens, and prepare two rooms for two families now living in cellars. Until the time when, with the aid of engineers (you are an engineer, aren’t you?), we have built good dwellings for everybody, you will have to squeeze up a little. Your telephone will serve ten families. This will save a hundred hours of work wasted on shopping, and so forth. Now in your family there are two unemployed persons who can perform light work: a citizeness fifty-five years of age and a citizen fourteen years of age. They will be on duty for three hours a day supervising the proper distribution of provisions for ten families and keeping the necessary account of this. The student citizen in our squad will now write out this slate order in two copies and you will be kind enough to give us a signed declaration that you will faithfully carry it out.’
This, in my opinion, shows, by means of striking examples, how the distinction between the old bourgeois and the new socialist state apparatus and state administration could be illustrated.
We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.
This is a fascinating approach. Lenin is addressing one of the objections to the Bolsheviks taking state power that it will not be able to administer the state because it does not have enough people. He is giving an idea of how the Bolsheviks can build up the state. But it is a very different idea of what the state is. The squad of 15 people is now part of the state. It is also interesting what Lenin writes about the exact makeup of this militia.
We have not yet seen, however, the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat, when tens of millions of people who have been crushed by want and capitalist slavery see from experience and feel that state power has passed into the hands of the oppressed classes, that the state is helping the poor to fight the landowners and capitalists, is breaking their resistance. Only then shall we see what untapped forces of resistance to the capitalists are latent among the people; only then will what Engels called “latent socialism” manifest itself. Only then, for every ten thousand overt and concealed enemies of working-class rule, manifesting themselves actively or by passive resistance, there will arise a million new fighters who have been politically dormant, suffering in the torments of poverty and despair, having ceased to believe that they are human, that they have the right to live, that they too can be served by the entire might of the modern centralized state, that their contingents of the proletarian militia can, with the fullest confidence, also be called upon to take a direct, immediate, daily part in state administration.
These lines were written a month before the October revolution took place. Lenin’s view is based, to a very large degree, on something that Lenin was committed to: that the poorest and most oppressed of the working class have this tremendous role to play in the future. What we see in this pamphlet is an expression of confidence in the proletariat. It shows not only Lenin’s tactical brilliance but also his thoroughly revolutionary view.
This orientation also explains why the Bolshevik majority in the soviets, when it came to pass, looked so different from when the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries had been the dominant force – this is also described by Trotsky in one of the chapters of The Russian Revolution.
Another argument against the seizure of power – and this was the view of almost everyone on the left, including the Bolsheviks – was that a socialist revolution could not be sustained in Russia without revolution taking place in the more economically developed countries of Europe. But Lenin and Trotsky believed that the Russian revolution could be the first, and could spark others. Whereas the more passive view, the Menshevik view, was that they just had to wait. Unfortunately, none of the other revolutions that followed, in Hungary, Germany, Slovakia and elsewhere, succeeded.
In early October, there was still vacillation and opposition within the Bolshevik leadership over the question of seizing power. The moderate socialists, the Mensheviks, and even their more left-wing elements, were totally opposed to it and were speaking out very openly against it. It is important to point out that this struggle between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks had gone on for 14 years, since 1903. The Mensheviks constantly wanted to push the liberal bourgeoisie forward as the leadership, to have them speak on behalf of the movement. From the very time of the split in the Russia Social Democratic Party, in 1903, the Mensheviks had said that it was the liberal bourgeoisie that must lead the next stage of the revolution into the bourgeois capitalist phase of Russia.
In the 1905 revolution, the Mensheviks had the same view. When the war came, they ended up supporting the liberal bourgeoisie, which was for the war. And in 1917, in the February revolution, all the way through, the Mensheviks kept saying that the bourgeoisie had to lead because this was the bourgeois phase of the revolution.
We see the same thing in the left in the United States too, where moderate socialists say: “Oh, we don’t want to have revolutionaries speak at rallies. Let’s just get the big names because we want to have broader actions.” But not to have the revolutionary line presented is to take a position of constantly relying on the liberal bourgeoisie or the radical middle-class elements.
The Bolsheviks proceeded with preparations for the insurrection, for their actual seizure of power. This process was going too slowly for Lenin, who was getting frustrated at a time when he was in his hiding place but maintaining constant communication. Lenin understood that if it were not seized, the revolutionary crisis would pass. A revolutionary opportunity comes into being, and if it is not taken, it goes away; it disappears.
The bourgeoisie was seeking to regain its footing, to reassemble its forces in alliance with the monarchists and all kinds of reactionaries. The bourgeois forces had suffered a blow but they had not been totally defeated and they were going to come back. The Bolsheviks organized the Military Revolutionary Committee to carry out the practical preparations.
But in the days right before the insurrection, two of the top leaders of the party, Zinoviev and Kamenev, came out against the insurrection, not only within the party but publicly. They spoke out in other newspapers and this compromised and threatened the insurrection. It jeopardized the revolution. And this violated the Bolshevik organizational principle of democratic centralism; that is the party has to have internal discussions but when it has made its decision it has to act in a unitary way. This is what democratic centralism in a revolutionary party is made for: in the long run, the revolution. But nothing shows more clearly than a revolutionary situation that not having democratic centralism threatens even the possibility of a revolution. For example, if half the party says: “Well, no, we’ve made a decision, but we’re not into that so we’re not going to do it; and, moreover, we’re going to denounce it, in public, in the bourgeois press, before the revolution happens.”
When Zinoviev and Kamenev spoke out in this way, they were expelled, even though they had been long-time leaders from the very beginning of the Bolshevik Party. Later, after the Bolshevik revolution, they were readmitted to the Bolshevik Party after they acknowledged their mistake. They criticized themselves for what they had done. Zinoviev became the head of the Communist International and Kamenev and Zinoviev both became leading figures in the socialist governments that followed.
On Oct. 25 and 26, the insurrection, the seizure of power, took place. The revolution took place in Petrograd, Moscow and other cities. In Petrograd, the capital, the takeover was virtually bloodless. No more than a couple of people were killed. It was done with great efficiency and with tremendous support from the working class. They seized government buildings, the armories, the telephone and telegraph, the railway stations and the centers of communication and distribution.
In Moscow, there was more fighting. There was a battle with the military cadets, but very quickly the revolution began to spread. The following is a proclamation that was read on that day, October 25, in the Petrograd Soviet:
Comrades, the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, about the necessity of which the Bolsheviks have always spoken, has been accomplished.
What is the significance of this workers’ and peasants’ revolution? Its significance is, first of all, that we shall have a Soviet government, our own organ of power, in which the bourgeoisie will have no share whatsoever. The repressed masses will themselves create a power. The old state apparatus will be shattered to its foundations and a new administrative apparatus set up in the form of the Soviet organizations.
From now on, a new phase in the history of Russia begins, and this, the third Russian revolution, should in the end lead to the victory of socialism.
One of our urgent tasks is to put an immediate end to the war. It is clear to everyone that in order to end this war, which is closely bound up with the present capitalist system, capital itself must be fought.
We shall be helped in this by the world working-class movement, which is already beginning to develop in Italy, Britain and Germany.
The proposal we make to international democracy for a just and immediate peace will everywhere awaken an ardent response among the international proletarian masses. All the secret treaties must be immediately published in order to strengthen the confidence of the proletariat.
Within Russia, a huge section of the peasantry has said that they have played long enough with the capitalists and will now march with the workers. A single decree putting an end to landed proprietorship will win us the confidence of the peasants. The peasants will understand that the salvation of the peasantry lies only in an alliance with the workers. We shall institute genuine workers’ control over production.
We have now learned to make a concerted effort. The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organization, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.
We must now set about building a proletarian socialist state in Russia.
Long live the world socialist revolution!
Now the question, “Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?” became the key question. Now they had taken power and they were trying to spread this power through the country into different areas. But would they be able to hold onto it? Despite everyone predicting that this was going to be shorter than the Paris Commune, shorter than the 72 days that the Commune lasted, the Bolsheviks held on. Against unbelievable odds, against all of their enemies and opponents in the world, the Bolsheviks showed the world that they could hold state power. And for the first time in history, not only did the oppressed masses fought and died for a cause, not only did they fight and die for justice, but they took power in their own name. And they held onto it despite invasions by 14 imperialist armies and the mobilization of the whole anti-communist Russia – from the czarists to eventually the Mensheviks, who fought bitterly against them.
The left Social Revolutionaries, who split away from their party, were with the Bolsheviks for a period of time, but by August of the next year one of them attempted to assassinate Lenin. He shot Lenin in the head, which led to his early death in 1924. Some of them eventually joined the Bolshevik Party. From all of the parties on the left, the more revolutionary elements joined the Bolsheviks. But as parties, they continued in alliance with the bourgeoisie, into the civil war and the interventions that followed.
The Russian revolution could not have succeeded without the support that it received from the workers in other countries, despite the fact that revolutions were not successful in those countries. This support included uprisings against the countries that were intervening in the civil war – like the rebellion in the French navy. A lot of armies that were sent into Russia had rebellions, mutinies by the troops. And there were demonstrations of workers all over the world that supported the Russian revolution.
The Russian revolution, in turn, inspired millions around the world, not just in capitalist countries but also in the colonized world. And, in a way, the greatest thing that the Russian revolution showed was that imperialism could be defeated, that the imperialists could lose. And from that point of view, it is justified to say that up to that point the Russian revolution was the greatest event in human history.
It also showed that only this kind of a party that Lenin had built, the vanguard party, could lead a socialist revolution. What happened in Russia between 1903 and 1917 was a great testing ground. For all the different currents of the socialist movement, of the supposedly revolutionary movement, of the Marxist movement, only one emerged and was able to lead a revolution to victory – and that was the Bolshevik Party, a type of party that was different from all others.