Australasian Spartacist No. 234
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
We print below the second part of a presentation given at forums in Sydney and Melbourne in November last year. It has been edited for publication. Part One appeared in ASp No. 233, Summer 2017/18.
The February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the tsarist monarchy was carried out overwhelmingly by the working class, with the peasants, organised in the army, also playing a key role. The spark was a demonstration by women workers on 23 February (8 March in the new calendar, International Women’s Day). Everything happened quickly. On 25 February there was a general strike in Petrograd followed by a mutiny in some regiments and the creation of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. By 28 February the tsar’s ministers were arrested.
The tsarist dynasty collapsed, mainly because the army no longer wanted to fight. Whole units were abandoning the front and refusing to carry out orders. A powerful indication was when Cossack regiments (who were considered very loyal to the tsar) refused to put down a workers demonstration in Petrograd. The bloody war was deeply unpopular at home and amongst the soldiers. Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky estimate in their book The ABC of Communism (1920) that around eight million soldiers had been killed by 1918.
The soviets that formed during the February Revolution had previously arisen during the 1905 Revolution. But now they included soldiers, many of whom were peasants. More and more these peasant soldiers, driven at bottom by their desire for sweeping agrarian revolution, became politicised. Dying in the trenches while their starving families were deprived of land, these soldiers began to question the war. The army gave these previously atomised masses an organisational structure. The soldiers’ soviets became the organised form of the armed military units that were now at the disposal of the working class.
The Paradox of the February Revolution
While workers had formed soviets and toppled the monarchy, the official government that emerged from the February Revolution was bourgeois. Even as street fighting was raging in Petrograd on the night of 27 February, a self-appointed Provisional Committee of bourgeois-monarchist politicians met in the Tauride Palace. Behind the back of the popular uprising, they declared a Provisional Government whose aim was to establish a constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile, in a different wing of the Tauride Palace, another cabal were being appointed to head the Petrograd and All-Russian Soviets. These were the leaders of the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs). While the SRs were mainly based on the peasantry the Mensheviks represented urban petty-bourgeois layers and the more conservative and privileged workers. Based on a program that the bourgeoisie should lead and rule, the Mensheviks and the SRs, then at the head of the Soviets, appealed to the Provisional Government to take control.
So the February Revolution resulted in “dual power.” The bourgeois Provisional Government existed alongside the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. This was an inherently unstable situation. Trotsky notes that one bourgeois politician complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet.” Such a situation could only be resolved by proletarian revolution or bloody counterrevolution.
Lenin Fights to Rearm the Party
The Bolsheviks were in the soviets that formed in late February, but only as a minority. With their leadership underground and/or dispersed they were lagging behind the masses. The soviets were politically dominated by Mensheviks and SRs who maintained that the February Revolution had achieved its goal of overthrowing the monarchy and now everyone must defend “democratic” Russia against German imperialism. In other words, the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie should continue. With Lenin in exile, and particularly after the return of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia began to bend towards the Mensheviks’ support to the imperialist war.
An article published in the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda in early March called on every man to remain at his fighting post while the Bolsheviks sought to pressure the Provisional Government to induce warring countries to open immediate negotiations. On hearing this, Lenin was furious. He wrote, “I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party, rather than surrender to social-patriotism.” When Lenin finally got back to Russia, immediately upon arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station he climbed atop an armoured car and began to speak. Hailing the assembled cheering workers who had brought down the tsar, he shocked the official pro-war Soviet welcoming committee by saluting the German revolutionary leader Karl Liebknecht, who was in prison for opposing German militarism. Lenin declared, “The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters
. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution). Lenin then went straight to a Bolshevik meeting where he gave a two-hour speech. While the speech is not preserved, the left Menshevik Sukhanov describes Lenin as saying: “We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the Soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies!” Sukhanov bleats: “I will never forget that thunderlike speech, startling and amazing not only to me, a heretic accidentally dropped in, but also to the faithful.”
This was the opening shot of Lenin’s fight to rearm the party. His “April Theses,” which he successfully fought for at the April party conference, included a recognition that the seizure of power by the proletariat would place on the order of the day not only the democratic tasks in Russia, but also socialist tasks. That sounds a lot like Trotsky’s permanent revolution! [For more on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, see Part One.] Trotsky notes in Lessons of October (1924), “The fundamental controversial question, around which everything else centered, was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.” Lenin was able to win over the party because his program corresponded to the needs of the proletariat and the peasantry. And because there was a proletarian base in the Bolshevik Party that he could appeal to. These workers had been waiting patiently for someone to put forward the seizure of power by the Soviets. After Lenin’s successful struggle to rearm the party, the Bolshevik Party’s influence spread like wildfire.
Key to the Bolsheviks’ success in 1917 was the fusion of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution with Lenin’s struggle to build a programmatically-based vanguard party steeled against any reconciliation with or capitulation to bourgeois democracy. Lenin was irreconcilably opposed to class collaboration and to the Russian bourgeoisie. While his old slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry had nothing in common with the Menshevik program of looking to the bourgeoisie to lead the revolution, the proposal for a joint dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was flawed, not least because the peasantry is not an independent class but an atomised petty-bourgeois layer.
Faced with the reality of dual power, Lenin discarded the old democratic dictatorship slogan. Lenin declared “Only assumption of power by the proletariat, backed by the semi-proletarians, can give the country a really strong and really revolutionary government” (“A Strong Revolutionary Government,” May 1917). Trotsky, in turn, came over to Lenin on the party question, making clear on his return to Russia in May 1917 that he no longer favoured unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. He joined the party soon after, working closely with Lenin.
In contrast to both Lenin and Trotsky, the right wing in the Bolshevik Party still sought consolidation of the new bourgeois democracy. This tension would ultimately lead to Kamenev and Zinoviev opposing the seizure of power in October. As Trotsky pointed out in Lessons of October, “a revolutionary party is subject to the pressure of other political forces.” The party’s power of resistance is weakened when it has to make political turns. The most abrupt turn is when the question of armed insurrection against the bourgeoisie is on the agenda.
Unsurprisingly, the fall of the tsarist monarchy in February had stimulated national movements among the oppressed nations of Russia. Trotsky wrote: “In this matter, however, we observe the same thing as in all other departments of the February regime: the official democracy, held in leash by its political dependence upon an imperialist bourgeoisie, was totally incapable of breaking the old fetters.” The Liberal-Compromisist coalition that issued from the February Revolution offered the oppressed nationalities more of the same oppression. Or, as Trotsky expressed it, “the democratic state remained the same old state of the Great Russian functionary, who did not intend to yield his place to anybody.”
Lenin kept hammering away at the right to self-determination for oppressed nations. In doing so he exposed the Menshevik/SRs as obstacles to attaining basic democratic rights and won the oppressed masses to the Bolshevik banner. As Trotsky put it, “the national current, like the agrarian, was pouring into the channel of the October Revolution.” Trotsky also makes it crystal clear that the Marxist appraisal of national wars and revolutions does not imply, however, that the bourgeoisie of backward countries have a revolutionary mission. This was the view of Stalin and his followers. They took from Lenin’s teaching about the progressive historic significance of the struggle of oppressed nations that the bourgeoisie of colonial countries had a revolutionary role to play. In fact, as Trotsky pointed out, “Only the working class standing at the head of the nation can carry either a national or an agrarian revolution clear through.”
So, national liberation can be a motor force for proletarian rule if the proletariat acquires a communist consciousness and it is led by a communist party. The national question is one of the things the Bolsheviks were known for, as well as their worker mobilisations against anti-Jewish pogroms by the fascistic Black Hundreds. As Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done?, the party must be the “tribune of the people
able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression.”
The Fall of the First Provisional Government
The first Provisional Government was brought down following its pledge to continue the hated imperialist war. A new cabinet was formed on 5 May and this time the SR and Menshevik soviet leaders took ministerial posts in the capitalist government alongside the bourgeois Kadet Party. Trotsky later called this Russian coalition government “the greatest historical example of the Popular Front.” The popular front was the name that the Stalinists would use, starting in the 1930s, to designate their coalition government betrayals. Such class collaboration is not a tactic, but the greatest betrayal! When a workers party enters a popular front with capitalist parties, whether in government or in opposition, it is a pledge by the traitorous working-class leaders that they will not violate the bourgeois order. In fact they’ll defend it.
The mood in Petrograd was changing in favour of the Bolsheviks who had a near majority in the factories. In early June when a demonstration called by the Bolsheviks was banned by the Menshevik/SR-led Soviet, the Bolsheviks stood down. The conciliationist Soviet leadership then called their own demonstration on 18 June. To their horror the workers came out en masse under Bolshevik slogans, including: “Down with the offensive!” “All power to the soviets!” and “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” Lenin and Trotsky devised the latter slogan in response to the coalition government. It meant: break the coalition with the capitalists. The soviets should take all the power!
By early July Petrograd was in semi-insurrection. Workers and soldiers, infuriated by the coalition government now led by the SR leader Kerensky, were demanding “All power to the Soviet!” The Bolsheviks were worried that a July insurrection in the cities was premature, that the revolution had not gone deep enough and that it would not be backed by the peasantry thus making it impossible for the workers to hold power, resulting instead in bloody counterrevolutionary reaction. However after initially opposing the July demonstrations, the Bolshevik leadership decided that it was better to try to provide leadership and prevent a premature insurrection. The Bolshevik estimation was correct and, after the demonstrations, a period of severe repression followed. Bolsheviks were killed. Trotsky was arrested and Lenin went into hiding. The repression however did make clear to the workers the true nature of this popular-front government. It was nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
While in hiding, Lenin devoted his time to writing State and Revolution. He wrote that the bourgeoisie uses lies to hide its dictatorship and that states are not neutral arbiters floating above classes. He defended Engels’s understanding that the core of the state is armed bodies of men— the military, prisons and police—who hold a monopoly of violence. These instruments exist for the social domination of the ruling class. Under capitalism that means the rule of the bourgeoisie. Lenin’s pamphlet codifies a central lesson of the revolution: that the proletariat cannot take over the bourgeois state to wield it in the interests of the working class. Rather, the proletariat must shatter the old state machinery and create a new state to impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to expropriate and suppress the capitalist exploiters. There was supposed to be a seventh chapter of State and Revolution but Lenin had to stop writing and go back to Petrograd to actually lead the revolution. As he says in a postscript: “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”
Kornilov’s Coup Foiled by Bolsheviks
By August the bourgeoisie realised that only a military coup could stop the revolution and called on the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Kornilov, to crush the soviets. Kornilov was a monarchist general of the anti-Jewish “Black Hundred” type. A victory for Kornilov not only would have meant a slaughter of the pro-Bolshevik masses, but also would have been fatal for many of the compromisers as well. The attempted coup showed that bourgeois democracy, as represented by the Provisional Government, was not viable in Russia in 1917. The real choices were represented by the Bolsheviks on the one hand, and Kornilov and the forces of bourgeois reaction on the other. The conciliationist SR and Menshevik tops were paralysed. In contrast the Bolsheviks organised proletarian actions. Railway workers mobilised to prevent the transport of soldiers and military hardware, and stopped Kornilov in his tracks.
Lenin waged another struggle against Bolshevik conciliators who wanted to use the Kornilov threat to slide over into a political bloc with Kerensky and the provisional government leading back to a defencist policy on the war. Lenin declared:
“Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.”
Even though the German army had seized Riga and was approaching Petrograd, Lenin remained steadfast. He said: “We will become defensists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat” (“To the Central Committee of the RSDLP,” 30 August 1917). Despite the tremendous pressure, the Bolsheviks never abandoned their defeatist posture towards the Russian bourgeois government and this was instrumental to its success in seizing power.
Towards the Seizure of Power
By the beginning of September the masses were convinced that the old soviet misleaders were politically bankrupt and that only the Bolsheviks would take decisive action to end the war and stop capitalist sabotage of the economy. The General Staff of the army was no longer capable of mobilising military units against revolutionary Petrograd. Large areas of the countryside were aflame as returning peasant soldiers seized the landlords’ fields and torched palatial mansions. On 4 September, Trotsky was released from prison. From mid-September Lenin fought relentlessly to put insurrection on the order of the day. By 23 September, Trotsky had been elected Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks had solid majorities in both the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets. The bourgeoisie and conciliationists tried parliamentary diversions such as the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament. However Lenin and Trotsky fought against any parliamentarist illusions. Trotsky declared, “Long live the direct and open struggle for a revolutionary power throughout the country!”
The crucial upcoming event was the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was very popular with the masses because it was sure to have a Bolshevik majority. A meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee on 10 October voted for insurrection by a majority of ten to two. Lenin managed to attend even though he was still in hiding. As was typical of Lenin, the resolution starts with the international situation, that is, the ripening of world revolution. The insurrection in Russia is regarded as a link in the chain. The idea of building socialism in one country was not in anyone’s mind then, not even Stalin’s.
After this decisive resolution, the workers were arming, drilling, setting up the Red Guards. Workers at the weapons factories were funnelling weapons directly to the Red Guards. But there were still differences in the Bolshevik leadership. There was another meeting on 16 October, where Lenin again argued for insurrection and Kamenev and Zinoviev again voted against it. Kamenev and Zinoviev then had a public statement printed in a non-Bolshevik newspaper opposing the insurrection. Lenin called them strike-breakers and demanded their expulsion from the party. Luckily for them, the revolution intervened. Stalin voted with Lenin for insurrection but kept his options open by defending Kamenev and Zinoviev in case the revolution failed.
Despite Lenin’s worries, an insurrection was in fact being organised through the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC). The MRC arose from a joint SR/Menshevik motion that was intended to disguise the fact they were treacherously planning to send the Petrograd garrison to the front. To their surprise, the Bolsheviks voted for the motion knowing they would have a majority in the MRC. Trotsky reckoned that a body that was legally identified with the soviets was an ideal vehicle for the Bolsheviks to prepare the seizure of power in the name of defending the upcoming congress of soviets.
A decisive step towards the seizure of power occurred when the Petrograd Soviet, at the behest of the Bolsheviks, invalidated an order by Kerensky to transfer two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. Trotsky noted:
“The moment when the regiments, upon the instructions of the [Soviet] Military Revolutionary Committee, refused to depart from the city, we had a victorious insurrection in the capital, only slightly screened at the top by the remnants of the bourgeois-democratic state forms. The insurrection of October 25 was only supplementary in character.”
—Lessons of October
On 24 October, Kerensky tried to shut down the Bolshevik newspaper. The MRC immediately sent a detachment to reopen it and also to start taking over the telephone exchange and other key communication centres. Even at this point Lenin was frustrated with the lack of progress of the insurrection and went in disguise to the Bolshevik headquarters to oversee preparations personally.
The cruiser Aurora was still firing on the Winter Palace when the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened. Lenin began his speech with the famous sentence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The three-point agenda was end the war, give land to the peasants and establish a socialist dictatorship. The Bolsheviks’ proclamations were punctuated by the steady boom of Red naval artillery directed against the government holdouts in the Winter Palace, which was finally taken.
As we’ve seen, the soviets by themselves do not settle the question of power. They can serve different programs and leaderships. As Trotsky wrote in Lessons of October, “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.” At the opening session of the Congress of Soviets, the Mensheviks and the right wing SRs, enraged that the Bolsheviks had taken power, walked out. Trotsky basically said “Good riddance!” However, consistent with their opposition to the seizure of power, the right wing of the Bolshevik Party leadership around Kamenev argued for a coalition government. They had to back down when it became clear that there was nobody to form a coalition with. Far from wanting to help run a workers state, the Mensheviks and SRs immediately started organising a counterrevolutionary uprising against the Bolsheviks which was quickly repulsed.
Besides proceeding on peace negotiations and land to the peasantry, a new revolutionary government of People’s Commissars was appointed, which over the next period proceeded with nationalising the banks, restarting industry and laying the foundations of the new Soviet state.
On 15 November the new Soviet government issued the “Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia” putting forward the following principles: equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of self-determination up to secession and formation of a separate state, abolition of all national and religious privileges, and the free development of all national and ethnic groups inhabiting Russia. Trotsky comments in his History of the Russian Revolution:
“The bourgeoisie of the border nations entered the road of separatism in the autumn of 1917, not in a struggle against national oppression, but in a struggle against the advancing proletarian revolution. In the sum total, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations manifested no less hostility to the revolution than the Great Russian bourgeoisie.”
True enough, and certainly the bourgeoisies of various border areas were willing lackeys of the imperialist powers, which tried to overturn the Russian Revolution. But this is why Lenin’s position on the national question spoke so powerfully to the working masses. What he wanted was a voluntary union of nations.
The question of national divisions does not go away the day after the socialist revolution, but only in the more distant communist future. The idea that the national question was no longer an issue was defeated in the debate in 1919 over the Russian party program. Actually it was another go-around with those who had proposed “imperialist economism” before the revolution. The party program not only asserted that “the colonial and other nations which are oppressed, or whose rights are restricted, must be completely liberated and granted the right to secede” but also emphasized that “the workers of those nations which under capitalism were oppressor nations must take exceptional care not to hurt the national sentiments of the oppressed nations
and must not only promote the actual equality, but also the development of the language and literature of the working people of the formerly oppressed nations so as to remove all traces of distrust and alienation inherited from the epoch of capitalism” (“Draft Programme of the R.C.P.[B.]”). Lenin’s last struggle was waged against the Great Russian chauvinist bullying of the Georgian communists by Stalin and others. This was part of the struggle against the developing Stalinist bureaucracy. After Lenin’s death and the defeat of the 1923 German Revolution, the right wing of the Bolsheviks re-emerged as a bureaucratic caste and began to coalesce around Stalin.
This talk cannot take up in any depth the question of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. Marxists have always understood that the material abundance necessary to uproot class society and its attendant oppressions can only come from the highest level of technology and science based on an internationally planned economy. The economic devastation and isolation of the Soviet workers state led to strong material pressures toward bureaucratisation.
In the last years of his life, Lenin, often in alliance with Trotsky, waged a series of battles in the party against the political manifestations of the bureaucratic pressures. The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could only be built on a worldwide basis, and they fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe. The idea that socialism could be built in a single country was a later anti-Marxist perversion.
Despite the political triumph of the bureaucratic caste beginning in 1923-24, the central gains of the revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a planned economy—remained. These gains were apparent, for example, in the material position of women among other things. Earlier this year the New York Times ran an interesting piece called “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” It is mostly about East European countries which became bureaucratically deformed workers states after World War II. It points to the impact of the social gains on the lives of women. Here are a few quotes:
“A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women
. Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria
. Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships. ‘Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,’ she said. ‘After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased’.”
Then there was this from a 30-something working woman of Germany speaking today of her mother’s desire for grandchildren: “She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women [in East Germany] before the Wall fell,” referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
The gains issuing from the degenerated Soviet workers state is why we of the International Communist League stood for the unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and waged an intransigent fight against all threats of capitalist counterrevolution. We also understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state and called for a workers political revolution to oust the bureaucracy, to restore soviet democracy and pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution necessary to build socialism.
The destruction of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in 1991-92, and in East Europe, transformed the political landscape of the planet and threw proletarian consciousness backwards. We actively fought counterrevolution from East Germany to the Soviet Union itself. Long-time leaders of the Cliffite groups Socialist Alternative and Solidarity celebrated counterrevolution. Their parent party in Britain declared, “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing.” Capitalist counterrevolution triggered an unparalleled economic collapse throughout the former Soviet Union, with skyrocketing rates of poverty and disease. Internationally, with the absence of the Soviet Union as a counterweight, the imperialists had a relatively free hand to project their military might.
During World War I Rosa Luxemburg posited that the choices were socialism or barbarism. That’s true now, too. We know we have a long row to hoe and that we are a small, international, revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. We also know that the tide will again turn and that future workers revolutions will need the Bolshevik political arsenal. Their cadres must be educated in the experiences of the October Revolution. So that’s our job and no one else’s. To quote James P. Cannon again, “We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood” (Struggle for a Proletarian Party ).