When the Russian workers took power

Reprinted from a back issue of 'Militant' 1992, the paper of the Australian CWI.
Written By Stephen Jolly

Every worker serious about real change in society should study the events of the Russian Revolution. It's not just a question of celebrating what has been called "the greatest event in world history", when working people took power for the first time they changed the world forever.

But 1917 is a test-case, a laboratory of revolution for workers today. During the course of 10 months (from February to October), all the ebbs and flows that exist in all revolutions displayed themselves. The Bosheviks - the most radical party of the Russian workers - proved capable (at least after Lenin returned from exile in April) of applying correct Marxist strategy and tactics to overcome each task of the revolution. By September they were rewarded with majority support among the working class and then the ultimate prize in October....

The Background

In 1917 Russia was ripe for revolution. World War One was into its third year. Under the dictatorship of the backward, 1,000-year old Czarist monarchy, Russia suffered defeat after defeat. Death, famine and economic chaos bled the workers and peasants white.

A feudal structure (including the oppression of whole nationalities by the Russian rulers, peasants robbed of land, a powerful Church sat side -by-side with a weak, foreign-dominated capitalism.

The masses had had enough. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky had argued 15 years earlier that change would only come from the masses - and to more precise, the urban working class. An overthrow of the Czar and a develpment of a modern economy would not come from a capitalist (bourgeois) revolution, as had happened in France and Britian years centuries earlier.

Russian capitalism had arrived late on the scene and was under the thumb of the big imperialist powers, especially France and Britian. Inside Russia the Czar, the landowners, the church, and the new capitalists were in an unholy alliance against their mutual enemy, the workers and poor peasants.

The future Russian Revolution, Trotsky correctly predicted (in his theory of Permanent Revolution), would be a workers' socialist revolution. Because of their strategic position in big factories (even by world standards) and their consequent unity and power, the workers would lead the poor peasants against the Czar. But because of the nature of Russian society, they would be forced to move beyond and anti-feudal revolution, and over throw capitalism itself in order to be able to carry out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution and introduce land reform, end the war, free the oppressed nationalities etc. With feudalism and capitalism overthrow, the workers would simultaneoursly introduce the beginnings of socialism.

Because Russia was a weak power, a Russian Revolution was seen as the first step towards an international socialist transformation, not as an end in itself. Only on the basis of the democratic planning of the economy on an international basis, could Russia - through help from the workers in advanced Germany, Britian etc - hope to overcome its backwardness and move towards a society with living standards higher than the best on offer under capitalism.

February - the Revolution begins

The most downtrodden workers, the women textile workers, moved into action first. On International Women's Day, February 23rd, 90,000 women struck in Petrograd - Russia's industrial centre. The following day up to half the workers of the city joined them. After failing to bully the masses back to work with bullets, the troops went over to the side of the workers. Such a rapid, spontaneous revolution could only have been the result of years of suffering.

Despite the relative calm amongst the workers in the years before February, the "molecular process of evolution", to use Trotsky's words, was taking place in the consciousness of the masses. (How many union leaders today don't understand the real anger brewing up amongst their members in relation to real wage cuts, 'productivity improvements', and redundancies!)

Czarism collapsed under the pressure of the revolution.The workers began to set up Soviets (workers' councils) of elected representatives from the workplaces and the armed forces to run society.

Power was effectively in the hands of the workers. It was a class definition of a revolution. As Trotsky put it: "the direct interference of the masses in historic events... The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

After a life of poverty, dictatorship and oppression the joy of the masses was immense. Politics was on the streets and out of the chamber rooms of the Czar's palaces. Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, reported "the house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute. A soldier would be sitting there, and he always had an audience - usually some of the cooks or housemaids from next door, or some young people. An hour after midnight you could catch snatches of talk - 'Bolsheviks, Mensheviks...' At three in the morning: 'Milyukov, Bolsheviks...' At five - still the same street-corner meeting talk, politics etc. Petrograd's white nights are always associated in my mind now with those all-night political disputes."

Leaders trail the mases

But not for the first time in politics, the leaders of the masses trailed way behind the mood of the workers. In February the Bolshevik Party of Lenin was still only a minority force. The more "moderate" Mensheviks had most support amongst workers and they were in alliance with the equally "moderate" Social Revolutionaries (S-R's) based amongst the peasantry.

Rejecting the theory of the Permanent Revolution, they insisted on handing power to the capitalists! A Provisional Government was set up out of capitalist members of the old Czarist parliament or Duma, led by the Cadet Party. While the Soviets grew and held the potential to take power, the Soviet leaders consciously gave that power to the Provisional government. What Marxists call a 'dual power' situation existed.

The Mensheviks believed Russia needed to go through a stage of 'democratic' capitalism and industrialisation before socialism could put on the agenda - 2-stage theory. "The class best prepared, socially and psychologically, to solve national problems, is the bourgeoisie", said one Menshevik leader.

But the bougeoisie accepted power to stop an overthrow of their sick system, not to take society forward. One 'progressive' bourgeois said "if we do not take power, others will take if for us, these (worker) rotters who have already elected all sorts of scoundrels in the factories."

It was no surprise to Lenin and Trotsky, that the bourgeois-dominated Provisional government failed to carry out a single task of the bourgeois revolution (except the overthrow of the Czar, and that was done by the workers themselves). The war was not ended, the peasants were not given land, the minority nations remained under Russian domination.

Bolsheviks in trouble without Lenin

With Lenin in exile, the Bolsheviks were led in the early stages of the Revolution by Stalin and Kamenev. Outrageously they didn't clearly oppose the position of the Menshevik and S-R's. The first leaflet from the Bolsheviks only came out of February 27th, four days after the Revolution began,and it made no mention of Soviets, despite the fact these were the organisations workers were creating to take power.

The Bolshevik Kayurov addressed the striking women textile workers on the 24th and,"l explained the meaning of 'Women's Day'...and l endeavoured first and foremost to urge the women to refrain from any partial demonstrations and to act only upon the instructions given by the Party Committee, l was angered by the behaviour of the strikers, in the first place they obviously ignored the decisions taken by the Party's district committee, and then by me...I had called on the working women to show restraint and discipline - and now out of the blue, there was this strike." Spoken like many a trade union bureaucrat today!

Stalin declared that "it was unquestionable that the stark slogan 'Down with the war!' was absolutely unsuitable as a practical means"! Thus Stalin dismissively brushed aside the the greatest single demand of the masses.

From exile, Lenin was furious. He wrote that "only by taking - with the support of the majority of the people - the whole power of the state into its own hands, will the revolutionary proletariat, together with the revolutionary soldiers, create, in the shape of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, a government...which will alone be capable of quickly putting an end to the war".

Despite earlier criticisms, Lenin through the experience of 1917, came over to Trotsky's theory of the Permanent Revolution. Kamenev even accused Lenin of "Trotskyism"! (The organistional breach between Lenin and Trotsky ended when the latter admitted he had been wrong to seek conciliation in the past between the Bolsheviks and the now openly pro-capitalist Mensheviks. In July, Trotsky merged his own organisation with the Bolsheviks and was immediately elected onto the Central Committee and the Editorial Board).

Lenin returns

In April Lenin returned to Russia. He immediately set himself the task of turning around the position of the Bolsheviks to one of opposition to the Provisional government and for a policy of 'all power to the Soviets'. He viciously attacked the leaders of the party and the programme they held while he had been in exile.

One Menshevik sneaked into Lenin's first meeting with the Bolshevik leaders - leaders Lenin began to sneeringly call "Old Bosheviks" because they clung dearly to outmoded slogans of 'supporting the bourgeois revolution'. He reported, "l shall never forget that thunder-like speech, which startled and amazed not only me, a heretic who had accidentally dropped in, but all the true believers. l am certain that no one expected anything of the sort." Even Lenin's wife said "l am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy." But the rank and file of the party, reflecting increasing disillusionment amongst the masses in the Provisional government, rallied to Lenin and he soon won majority support for his 'April thesis'.

Once he had won this victory inside the party, he declared the major task for the Bolsheviks was to "patiently explain" their programme to the workers: that only through Soviet-rule and a socialist revolution could all the problems of the masses be solved.

Bolshevik membership had risen from 23,600 in February to 79,204 by April. This was to rise to 240,000 in August and up to 400,000 by the October Second Revolution.

Opposition to the war and new annexationist claims by the Cadet Foreign Minister Miliukov provoked big demonstrations by the workers in April. Banners called for "Down with Miliukov!" and "Down with the Provisional government!" Increasingly Lenin's position was in tune with the broad masses. The Provisional government was forced to sack some capitalist ministers and take on board Mensheviks and S-R's, including the S-R Kerensky as war minister. But the fundamental direction of government policy remained the same. The moderate leaders of masses were merely a cover - the war continued, there was still no land reform etc.

Soon the Bolsheviks won majortiy support in all-important Petrograd. The workers there were anxious to take on the government. But elsewhere the Bolsheviks remained in the minority as illusions in the Provisional government lingered on, especially in the rural areas.

The 'July days' Lenin continued to argue for "patient explanation" until the Bolsheviks won majority support amongst the workers nationally. But the pressure from the Petrograd workers burst out in early July, with nearly a million workers demonstrating in what became known as the 'July days'. In order to stop a disaster, as the Provisional government moved to isolated the advanced Petrograd workers from the other centres and the army masses and carry out a bloodbath, the Bolsheviks headed the demonstrations while arguing against insurrection until the time was right. This non-sectarian tactic ensured the 'July days' led to a bloody nose for the Petrograd workers rather than annihilation.

Lenin was forced to flee to Finland (by the Provisional government that included Mensheviks that Stalin had sought alliance with only months before!), where he wrote his brillant State and Revolution. Other leaders and thousands of rank and file members were arrested and the party press was forced underground.

After every defeat for workers comes counter-revolution or reaction to one degree or another. The July days boosted the confidence of the capitalists and army tops. Reflecting this mood, one Menshevik wrote at the time "the July events had destroyed Bolshevism". But this was too optimistic a hope, as August would prove. The Provisional government still couldn't satisfy the masses and support for the Bolsheviks would continue.

Kornilov's revolt

The aftermath of the July days saw an hysterical campaign of repression, slander and abuse by the government against the Bolsheviks, but increasingly also against the Soviets themselves. In the long-run, capitalism and landlordism could not except the existence of the Soviet's, based in the factories and in the army and navy units. The Provisional government increasingly held only partial power under the pressure of increasingly more militant Soviet's. The 'dual power' situation could not exist indefinitely as far as the workers or the forces of reaction were concerned. The position of the Menshevik and S-R's had no long-term future therefore.

On August 28th, General Kornilov (who another General callled "a man with a lion's heart and the brain of a sheep") spilt with Kerensky (now head of the Provisional government) and mobilised an army against Petrograd. His aim was to wipe out the centre of the Revolution, the workers, the Bolsheviks - and the whole system of Soviets.

Despite the repression the Bolsheviks faced at the hands of the Mensheviks and S-R's, they offered a 'united front' to these parties to jointly fight the threat from Kornilov. In joint struggle against reaction, more and more workers would see the superiority of the programme and methods of Bolshevism.

As Kornilov's army neared Petrograd, workers were armed to defend the city. The Red Guard claimed 40,000 armed workers ready fight. But they didn't have to be used. Agitatiors and Soviet delegated brilliantly succeeded in winning over the ranks of Kornilov's army. His army just melted away before battle and he was forced to flee for his life.

The balance of power once again swung back to the workers. In 50 days they would be in power.

The question of insurrection

The bolshevik-led victory over Kornilov left the Menshevik and S-R's support base wide open to be won by Lenin's party. Unconsciously exposing the weakness of a 2-stage theory toward's socialism, one historian has written, "the tragedy of the Mensheviks and the S-R's, reformist parties both, was that they turned their backs upon reforms,sacrificing these to the twofold constraint of alliance with a conservative-bourgeoisie and pursuit of the war."

Suppport for the Mansheviks and S-R's fell in Moscow from 70% in July to 18% by October. In September, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Moscow Soviet. As far as Lenin and Trotsky were concerned it was a question now of preparing the party to lead the workers to power - the party must begin prepartion for an insurrection.

On October 9th, the Petrograd Soviet (under Bolshevik control and with Trotsky as Chairperson) established the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) under Trotsky's leadership. The MRC won increasing numbers of army units and establishments to its fold. Bolshevik membership (see above) increased by tens of thousands.

Lenin, from Finland, repeatedly wrote to the Bolshevik leadership encouraging them to set a date for insurrection in order to push aside what was left of the Provisional government and take full power into the hands of the Soviets - now under Bolshevik control. He said it was crucial the time was not lost. If the insurrection was put off, the workers would lose confidence and apathy would follow. A missed opportunity would open the door once again to another Kornilov.

At such acute times, as Engels explained, 25 years can be as a day and then in one day can be summed up the essence of 25 years. Or as Lenin put it, "insurrection, delay is fatal". Every experienced trade union delegate today knows the importance of timing in winning support for industrial action.

But hesitation existed amongst some of the Bolshevik leaders. Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed Lenin. "Is the Russian working class in just a position (to take power) today?", they wrote, "No, a thousand times no!!!" (their emphasis).

One Bolshevik wrote of the Central Committee (CC) receiving one of Lenin's letters. "The letter was read: We all gasped. No one had yet put the question so sharply. No one knew what to do. Everyone was at a loss for a while. Then we deliberated and came to a decision. Perhaps this was the only time in the history of our party when the CC decided to burn a letter of Comrade Lenin's.

Less than two weeks before the actual insurrection, Kamenev and Zinoviev went public with their doubts. Lenin was furious with this breach of discipline in a such a life and death situation, "l no longer consider either of them comrades and l will fight with all my might... to secure the expulsion of both of them from the Party."

It was only on October 24th that Lenin managed to get the MRC, which was entrusted with the leadership of the insurrection, to establish a sub-committee to draw up a plan. The fight could have gone on longer if the Provisional government had not only hours later moved to close down the Bolshevik printing presses. MRC Chairperson Trotsky was awoken and told of this provocative move. He gave the fateful orders to move and within a short space of time and with little bloodshed the Bolsheviks were in power.

On October 25th, the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets was held and it approved the transfer of power to itself.

It is clear from even a cursory look at the events of 1917 that the role of the Bolsheviks, and Lenin himself, was crucial to victory. No end of revolutions have broken out this century with just as much heroism from the workers. But the existence of a well-organised party of Marxism, with deep roots in the working class, is vital to victory.

As the news of the Russian Revolution filtered through to workers internationally, it had a huge effect. From Australia to South Africa, from Britian to the US, advanced workers sought to emulate the new Russia where 'janitors became Chief Justices'. When the German workers moved to take power a year later, huge demonstrations of celebration broke out in Russian cities. It appeared the world revolution had begun. It seemed to many workers they were witnessing the revolutionary birth of a new world out of the womb of capitalism, with all its wars, famine and poverty...

Important difference between Russia in 1917 and the struggle for socialism in Australia today

  1. Unlike Russia in 1917, the Australian workers and their families make up a majority of society. There are close to three million blue and white collar workers in trade unions. They are educated, literate and, in effect, make society work. Room for a bureaucracy with a monopoly on administration and technical skills to capture state power from the workers is therefore much reduced compared to the backward Russia of 1917.

  2. The greater internationalisation of the world (economically, culturally, politically, technically) guarantees a spreading of a genuine workers' democracy from one country to the next. The experience of the Eastern European revolutions against Stalinism shows how revolutions spread and no country's ruling elite can isolate 'their' masses from the virus.

  3. The material conditions for socialism are already in place. It is just that capitalism cannot use new and already existing technology without forcing millions on the dole, turning inventions to weapons of mass destruction etc.The major domestic reason for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution was it's economic backwardness. Australia is an advanced industrial nation - a different kettle of fish entirely.

  4. The Labor and trade union leaders at present are way to the Right of even the most right-wing of the workers and peasants organisations in Russia 1917. This is a crucial factor in retarding political consciousness. Furthermore the absense at this stage of a large Bolshevik-like tendency in Australia will mean the fight for socialism will be more drawn out. However as illusions internationally in the New World Order and the "triumph of capitalism" increasingly come into conflict with the realities of everyday existence for working class people, the ideas that inspired the October Revolution will once again gain a mass echo.

More Labour History pieces are available here

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