Lessons from history: 1917
Revolution in Russia
The October revolution (7-8 November in the modern calendar) of 1917 in Russia was the greatest event in human history. Under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, it brought into existence the first, and so far the only, workers-led government to hold power for any length of time. With its appeal to the workers of the world to follow suit, it set out to sweep feudalism and capitalism from the face of the earth.
This was the most democratic form of government ever embarked on. The Bolsheviks drew on the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and of the 'soviets' (committees) that workers had set up during the revolution in Russia in 1905.
All major decision-making was to be done through a system of elected councils - of workers', soldiers' and peasants' delegates - at a local, regional and national level. Any paid representatives were to stand regularly for re-election and receive no more than the average wage of a worker.
By the summer of 1918, Russia was out of the war, its major banks, industries and land were in state hands and under workers' control and a rudimentary workers' management was operating through the country's soviets.
The idea of revolution had spread like wild-fire. By the end of 1918 an uprising in Germany had removed the Kaiser. The following year in Hungary, an attempt was made to emulate the Russian revolution. London dockers refused to load arms for use against the Bolsheviks.
Marxists had generally expected the first successful socialist revolution to take place in an industrialised country with an experienced working class, such as Germany, and later spread to less developed economies. But capitalism broke at its weakest link.
Russia at the time of the February revolution in 1917 was a vast war-drained country. Landless peasants made up 80% of the population. Two million Russian soldiers had been slaughtered in World War One.
Most industry in Russia was relatively modern and foreign-owned. Workers had been drawn from the countryside and concentrated together in large factories in the main cities of Moscow and Petrograd - the country's capital at the time.
The Tsars operated a suffocating police state. Before 1905 all opposition forces were illegalised.
When the first major workers' uprising against Tsarism broke out, at the very beginning of 1905, Russian forces were being humiliated in a war with Japan.
In Petrograd, a peaceful protest of striking workers led by a priest carrying a petition, was fired on by the Tsar's troops on 9 January, leaving hundreds dead.
Strikes spread rapidly across the vast country. A mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in Russia's Black Sea Fleet sparked more mass protests in Odessa, many hundreds were killed. During what became a general political strike, Soviets were thrown up as a new form of representative body with delegates elected to discuss the key issues in the struggle. They were a major threat to the old order.
Eventually, not having found sufficient support in the countryside and in the army, the 'first' Russian revolution was defeated. On 3 December the Petrograd soviet was broken up and its leaders arrested, including Leon Trotsky its president. Many opposition fighters were executed.
After this 'dress rehearsal' for the events of 1917, the workers' political leaders were either in prison, in internal exile or abroad. The workers and peasants bowed their heads to the yoke once more, harbouring enormous resentment against their oppressors but taking time to recover their fighting capacity. In spite of certain democratic rights having been won, a period of reaction set in.
But by 1912 strikes were breaking out in factories and mines across the country.
It was also the year that the main socialist party, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, finally split into two separate parties - the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks were intent on building a revolutionary party with trained cadres and serious, committed members in the factories, the army and the navy.
The Mensheviks favoured a looser form of organisation. Both, at this time, shared the view that the first stage would be a democratic revolution against feudalism in the shape of Tsarism and the 'landed gentry'. Then, in theory, after a period of development of capitalism, a move could be made towards socialism.
Trotsky began as early as 1904 to outline his theory of 'permanent revolution'. He was arguing, before Vladimir Lenin, that in 'backward' Russia the revolution to overthrow the monarchy and feudalism had to be combined with the socialist revolution under the leadership of the working class.
Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks only in July of 1917 but he was already accepted as one of the revolution's ablest leaders.
The February revolution of 1917 came after months of strikes and unrest. On International Women's Day (8 March in the modern calendar) women textile-workers in Petrograd walked out of their factories. They demanded an end to food shortages and price rises, and also an end to the war.
They were enthusiastically joined by tens of thousands of other workers. The Tsar had shown his inability to introduce reform. He ordered the troops to fire on demonstrations. The workers' appeals to the troops to refuse orders finally succeeded and the rule of the Tsars was over.
The atmosphere was one of joyous celebration. Workers had moved onto the scene of history. They had removed a hated government and held power in their hands, but did not know what to do with it. There was no party with a mass base, trusted by the workers, with a leadership who could indicate the next steps that needed to be taken. The workers took the easier way out of handing power to the apparently 'progressive' politicians.
The Provisional Government was a government of crisis from the very beginning, rivalled by the Petrograd Soviet of workers' and soldiers' representatives in a situation of 'dual power'.
The Petrograd soviet, with at this stage Menshevik representatives in a majority, commanded more support than the government among the population.
Lenin returned from exile on 3 April 1917, urging the Bolsheviks to see that the first revolution had to 'grow over' immediately into the next. He expressed total opposition to support being given to the provisional government by the Bolsheviks inside the country under the leadership of Kamenev and Stalin, who put forward the same arguments as the Mensheviks.
In May, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) decided to enter into the Kerensky government coalition. The Bolsheviks launched the demand of 'Down with the ten capitalist ministers' to expose the Mensheviks' failure to push for a government that truly represented the forces that had made the revolution.
Little had changed. The war continued. The provisional government had neither removed the capitalists in industry nor the feudal landlords from power. Often they were one and the same.
The revolt in the countryside spread like wild fire. Estates were seized and stately homes burned down. In the cities, demonstrations against the war multiplied.
The Bolsheviks' simple slogan of 'Peace, Bread and Land' accorded with the deepest desires of the mass of the population. It led workers, soldiers and eventually the peasantry to see the need to carry the revolution further. Tirelessly the Bolshevik Marxist workers' party continued its agitation in the factories and at the front.
By the middle of 1917, the Bolsheviks had massively increased their support in the city's central soviet of workers' and soldiers' deputies.
Although many workers were supporting the call 'All power to the soviets', the Bolshevik leadership around Lenin advised against a direct challenge for power until all the conditions for a successful revolution had matured.
When a proposal came from below in July for a general strike and mass demonstration against the war and to bring down the government, the Bolshevik leaders felt it was premature. But when it went ahead they gave it their support.
As they feared, it failed to draw the military over to their side or at least neutralise them - an essential prerequisite for a successful seizure of power. The July uprising was put down in blood.
By the end of August, Kerensky was under threat from a different direction - an attempted far-right coup by General Kornilov. The Army's Commander-in-Chief had decided the government was failing to deal harshly enough with the Bolsheviks and the soviets.
It was the mobilisation of workers and soldiers led by the Bolsheviks who then routed Kornilov's forces. Their mass 'sabotage' of the railways, as well as preparedness to defend the government with arms helped Kerensky to defeat reaction. But it enormously enhanced the power of the Bolsheviks in the soviets and gave them an overwhelming majority by the end of September.
The way for a revolutionary overthrow was rapidly being paved. The four conditions for a successful revolution spelled out by Lenin were all maturing rapidly.
The first is a crisis at the top of society. The ruling layer is split, uncertain as to how to proceed - whether to make concessions or employ repression to deal with the developing movement.
The second objective factor in a developing revolutionary situation is a middle class in ferment, not sure which way to turn but beginning to throw in its lot with the organised workers. In Russia in the autumn of 1917 the mass of the peasantry was ready for a fight to the finish against the landed aristocracy.
The forces of the state - the militia, sailors and soldiers - had also lost faith in the parties of the Kerensky regime and were ready to be neutral or take an active part in the revolution.
The working class of Petrograd, Moscow and elsewhere was already on the move, they were prepared to take the fight to a conclusion. This third condition for revolution had also reached full term.
The decisive fourth element necessary for a successful socialist revolution is the existence of a party that has the confidence of a large part of the working class, with a leadership that can see the main line of the march of events and can weigh up exactly what to do at each crucial moment in the struggle.
Having had no more than 3% support in the soviets at the beginning of 1917 and just a few thousand members, by October the Bolshevik Party had hundreds of thousands of worker-members and a majority in the soviets. They had support in the army and navy and set up the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee that would lead the October insurrection.
The leaders of the Bolshevik Party - Lenin and Trotsky - had a clear idea of what was needed, but also a keen sense of timing. They were agreed on the necessity of 'completing' the revolution by removing the capitalist parties from government and the class they represented from power in society. The Bolsheviks' clear slogans, together with their bitter experience, helped the workers, soldiers and poor peasants draw the conclusion that socialist revolution was necessary.
Then the vital role of leadership is to decide on the moment for action once all the conditions have come together. Too early an attempt at insurrection would have led to an abortion; too late would have meant a still birth with reaction triumphant.
The forces of reaction inside Russia as well as those of the German invader were threatening to close the opportunity for the Bolsheviks to bring down the Kerensky government; they had to seize the moment.
The insurrection began on 24 October. The Military Revolutionary Committee sent armed groups to seize the key strategic points. By morning Kerensky had fled and the Red Guards had taken over the Winter Palace. The seizure of power was swift. Even the tougher 'battle for Moscow' was over in a week.
By the morning of the 25 October an order was issued for the transfer of power to the Petrograd Soviet. That evening, the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets opened.
The first decrees of the new soviet government laid the basis for achieving the three basic demands of the revolution - 'Peace, Bread and Land'. The Decree on Peace meant the pursuit of a cease-fire and peace terms without annexations.
The Decree on Land meant the immediate expulsion of the feudal lords from their estates and the allocation of land to be used by the poor peasantry. The Bolsheviks aimed to gear up the production of modern agricultural machinery to transform productivity on the farms. The small farmers would be encouraged to see the advantages of the cooperative production of food.
Soviet power meant workers' delegates taking over immediate control of banks and industry in preparation for public ownership in 1918 and managing them as part of a completely democratically planned state-owned economy.
Attempts to snuff out the workers' revolution failed. Twenty-one armies were sent in by imperialist countries to back up the reactionary White forces in the Civil War. They were repulsed at great human cost by the heroic forces of the Red Army under Trotsky's command.
There was also enormous economic cost: Industrial production fell to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to 60%. Hundreds of thousands of people had been killed and millions died from starvation and disease.
The leaders of the revolution were acutely aware of the vital importance of spreading the revolution to other more industrialised countries, with a stronger working class, in order to rapidly develop the technique necessary to 'revolutionise' industry to establish a healthy planned economy.
In spite of the enormous enthusiasm among the oppressed across the world for the workers-led government in Russia, it was left tragically isolated. Socialist revolutions in Germany and elsewhere ended in defeat. After the death of Lenin in 1924, Stalin usurped the revolution, abolished workers' democracy and exterminated all opposition to his rule.
His counter-revolution did not take the form of the re-establishment of capitalism. (This came much later towards the end of the 20th century). It was a political counter-revolution in the interests of a parasitic caste who had little connection with the revolutionary events of 1917.
Huge advances were made in spite of this development. The economy grew rapidly because of the elimination of capitalism and feudalism and the five-year plans. But all elements of workers' democracy were crushed and its advocates physically annihilated, including Leon Trotsky in exile in Mexico.
A clear understanding of the processes of revolution and counter-revolution is vital for winning the battles ahead.
Revolutionary experiences need to be studied as generals study different battles - to learn from mistakes in order to avoid repeating them. But no two battles take place against exactly the same background and with exactly the same forces engaged.
Heroic mass movements have developed many times into challenges for power by workers and youth taking things into their hands.
In 2011 for example, Tunisia and Egypt saw events typical of revolution - when things move so fast that every day seems like ten years. The masses on the streets, the organised workers playing a decisive role with their strikes in overthrowing Ben Ali and Mubarak - these could have been their 'Februaries'.
But lacking was a Bolshevik or revolutionary party with broad support that could have expressed the unconscious strivings of those who were making the revolution - a party whose leaders could see the need to take the revolution directly on to the task of finishing with capitalism. Without this, there has so far been no 'October' in these countries, and not even any real democracy.
Workers and young people who want to find a way of changing the ugly capitalist world we live in would do well to look at the lessons of the Russian Revolution. The most important conclusion to draw is to get involved in a party dedicated to the cause of workers and poor people and the building of a new mass force for socialism.
Further reading on the revolution
- 1917: the year that changed the world
Lessons of the Russian Revolution for the 21st century.
By Peter Taaffe and Hannah Sell
- History of the Russian Revolution
By Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution is a classic work by one of the central leaders of the first socialist revolution.
Other titles by Trotsky:
- The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects - £10
- My Life - An Attempt at an Autobiography - £17.99
- In Defence of October - 50p
Available from Left Books
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