The October Revolution: Workers Take Power

Sep 2, 2014

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.

Dual Power

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.

[article continues on next page, “Lenin Returns to Russia”]