The October Revolution: Workers Take Power

Sep 2, 2014

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.

[article continues on next page, “Bolshevik Policy in the Countryside”]