Workers Vanguard No. 953
26 February 2010
Spartacist League/Britain Class
October 1917: The Bolshevik Revolution
The following article, based on a November 2009 educational presentation in London, is reprinted in slightly edited form from Workers Hammer No. 209 (Winter 2009-2010), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
The 1917 Russian October Revolution was the greatest victory for the working people of the world, a defining event of modern history. For the first time ever the proletariat seized state power and created a workers state based on soviets, or workers councils, under the Bolshevik Party’s leadership. As the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, put it in 1939:
“The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality.”
— Struggle for a Proletarian Party, 1943
The Soviet government decreed land to the peasants and pulled Russia out of World War I, an interimperialist war. It demanded an immediate peace without annexations, including freedom for the colonies subjugated by the imperialists. It also recognised the right to self-determination of all the non-Russian peoples oppressed under tsarist/capitalist rule.
The Bolshevik Revolution was not made solely for Russia, but for the working masses of the whole world, occurring at a time when the Indian subcontinent, China and Africa were either colonies or semicolonies of the imperialist powers. The Bolshevik Revolution became a beacon to the oppressed masses of all countries, not least in the colonial world. Revulsion against the imperialist rulers as a result of the slaughter in World War I led to a wave of revolutionary and pre-revolutionary struggles in many countries. This wave ended with the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923.
Only in Russia in October 1917 did this upsurge result in the working class taking state power, because uniquely among the socialist organisations of their time, the Bolsheviks had a programme for working-class power. At the outbreak of WWI on 4 August 1914, the German Social Democracy (as well as the Labour Party and most other parties in the Second International) passed definitively into the camp of social-chauvinism by supporting their “own” bourgeoisie in war. WWI was a watershed, provoking a profound realignment in the revolutionary workers movement internationally. Prepared by years of struggle and a decisive split with the Russian opportunists—the Mensheviks—Lenin and the Bolsheviks emerged as the leadership of an international movement to recapture the banner of revolutionary Marxism.
From 1914 onwards Lenin hammered away at two related themes: the need to split from the social traitors of the Second International and to fight for a new, Third International; and the call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war against the capitalist system. Lenin’s programme for the working classes of all the warring countries was revolutionary defeatism—i.e., the defeat of one’s own bourgeoisie is the lesser evil; turn the guns around—the main enemy is at home! Following the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1919 the Third (Communist) International was founded and, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, it sought to forge vanguard parties to fight for proletarian revolutions worldwide.
Social-chauvinism is integral to the programme of parties like the Labour Party. Old Labour governments have loyally served the aims of British imperialism, from the bloody partition of India in 1947, leading to communalist slaughter on a mass scale, to sending troops into Northern Ireland in 1969, to introducing vile racist virginity tests for Asian women in Britain in the 1970s. Social-chauvinism is alive and well today, as seen in the reactionary strikes against foreign workers, under the slogan “British jobs for British workers,” led by the Socialist Party [affiliated with Socialist Alternative in the U.S.] and trade-union bureaucrats and tacitly supported by most of the Labourite left. In building a party modelled on Lenin’s Bolsheviks, our strategic task is to expose such reformist organisations as an obstacle to building a revolutionary party.
Despite the grim poverty of Russia at the time of the October Revolution, the young workers state granted far-reaching measures of equality. It eliminated laws discriminating against women and gave women in Russia a level of equality and freedom that has not yet been attained by the most economically advanced “democratic” capitalist countries today. Just over a month after the revolution, two decrees established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner; all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were also abolished. The Bolshevik position was based on the following principle, as explained in a pamphlet by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (1923):
“It declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.”
This is light years ahead of the consciousness of liberals and fake leftists today, who go ballistic over our defence of Helen Goddard and of Roman Polanski. Both are behind bars because of “age of consent” laws, under which the bourgeois state accords to itself the right to regulate the sexual activity of youth.
Today’s reactionary political climate is shaped largely by counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union in 1991-92. The USSR remained a workers state (although degenerated), despite the rise to power of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste that began in 1923-24, rejecting the revolutionary internationalist programme of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky. We upheld the Trotskyist programme of unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union and the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe and called for proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, and we have a proud record of fighting against the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1989-90 and against counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union.
The message behind today’s rejoicing by the capitalist politicians and liberals over counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is: “never again” should the working class hold state power. While organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are dumping any remaining claim to base themselves on the Bolshevik Revolution, we in the ICL uniquely uphold the programme of the Bolshevik Party in that revolution. To quote James 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
There are many lessons from the revolution but the central one that I want to highlight—an issue that set the Bolsheviks apart from their competitors at the time, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs)—was the need to combat illusions in bourgeois democracy. Breaking such illusions was central to the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Ever since October 1917, social democrats and reformists, beginning with the Mensheviks, have denounced the October Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks should not have led the proletariat to seize power. Instead, they argue that the Russian proletariat should have supported the liberal bourgeoisie—in the name of “democracy.” The main accusation levelled against the Bolsheviks is that they violated bourgeois democracy. What they actually violated was the rule of the landlords and capitalists, based on private property—exactly what bourgeois democracy exists to protect. Bourgeois democracy is a facade to conceal the reality of capitalist rule which is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
The State Is Not Neutral
Lenin’s pamphlet, The State and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution, codifies a central lesson of the revolution: that the proletariat cannot use the bourgeois state to achieve a peaceful transition to socialism. Rather, the proletariat must smash the old state machinery, create a new state and impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to suppress and expropriate the capitalist exploiters.
The role of the reformists today, as it was in 1917, is to reinforce illusions in “democratic” imperialism. For groups like the SWP and Socialist Party, the solution to everything from how to combat the fascist British National Party to ending the British and U.S. imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is to appeal to the capitalist state. This is worse than grotesque: these bloody imperialist occupations are not aberrations, but part of the normal workings of “democratic” imperialism. The imperialist rulers have carried out mass murder and torture on an immense scale in their drive to secure world markets; much of the wealth that laid the foundations of British capitalism was acquired from the trade in African slaves. From the Indian subcontinent to Africa and beyond, British colonial rule killed tens of millions, subjugating entire populations. As Karl Marx put it in Capital, capitalism was born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
The Paradox of the February Revolution
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 February 23 (on the old calendar, which in the new calendar is March 8, International Women’s Day). On February 25 there was a general strike in Petrograd followed by a mutiny in some regiments and the creation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. By February 28 the tsar’s ministers were arrested. The paradox of the February Revolution was that while workers had toppled the monarchy, power was handed over to the bourgeoisie in the form of the Provisional Government. This bourgeois government existed side by side with the soviets in what was known as “dual power.” The central question in Russia following the February Revolution was this: whether to cede power to the bourgeoisie or whether the proletariat should take the power.
Tsarist Russia was the weakest link in the imperialist chain as the Russian bourgeoisie were entirely dependent on the European powers. The particular conditions in Russia were described by Trotsky as “combined and uneven development.” A vast mass of hundreds of millions of peasants—who had no mechanised agriculture, were only a generation away from serfdom and were hungry for land—co-existed with urban centres containing a small but concentrated proletariat. Particularly in Petrograd the proletariat was based in large-scale modern factories. This meant that the proletarian revolution could not hope to succeed and survive in backward Russia without the support of the mass of poor peasants.
The soviets, which had previously arisen in the 1905 Revolution, were revived in the February Revolution, but they now included soldiers, who were mainly peasants and who would otherwise have been difficult to organise. Soldiers’ soviets became the organised form of the armed military units that were now at the disposal of the working class.
Between February and October there was continual conflict between the Provisional Government and the soviets. Describing the instability of dual power, the first minister of war in the Provisional Government, Alexander Guchkov, complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it” (quoted in History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, 1930). Dual power could only be resolved either by revolution or counterrevolution.
With the overthrow of the autocratic rule of the tsar, democratic illusions became widespread. Upon his return from exile in the spring of 1917 Lenin described Russia as the “freest of all the belligerent countries in the world,” and there was freedom of expression and intense public debate, especially in the soviets about the way forward for the revolution. But the fundamental nature of Russia as an imperialist power had not changed and for Lenin, the question was to maintain the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary defeatist position on WWI—the task remained that of “turning the imperialist war into a civil war.”
The soviets in February were dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks, who maintained that the February Revolution had achieved the main task of overthrowing the monarchy and now the task was to defend “democratic” Russia against German imperialism. In other words the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie would continue. During Lenin’s exile the Bolshevik leaders in Russia began to bend in the direction of the Mensheviks’ defensism. Trotsky was scathing in his History of the Russian Revolution about a Pravda article in early March which said: “Our slogan is pressure upon the Provisional Government with the aim of compelling it
to make an attempt to induce all the warring countries to open immediate negotiations
and until then every man remains at his fighting post!” Lenin vehemently opposed this line in Pravda, saying in a March letter: “I shall prefer even an immediate split with anyone in our party, whoever it may be, to making concessions to the social-patriotism of Kerensky and Co.”
Lenin Fights to Rearm the Party
On his return to Russia in April, Lenin led a sharp fight to reorient the Bolshevik Party. Few events had such significance for the fate of the revolution as the Bolshevik Party conferences held in April, where the issue at stake was the question of the working class taking power. As Trotsky noted in Lessons of October (1924): “The fundamental controversial question, around which everything else centred, was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.”
Lenin’s “April Theses” make clear that not the slightest concession to “revolutionary defensism” is permissible. He abandoned his slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” in favour of a direct struggle for proletarian power. Lenin’s theses 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 the socialist tasks. Also included was a sweeping programme for nationalising land and banks under a soviet government and the creation of a new revolutionary international.
Even before April Lenin was irreconcilably opposed to class collaboration and to the Russian bourgeoisie. His old slogan had nothing in common with the Mensheviks, whose programme was that the Russian Revolution needed to be led by the bourgeoisie and supported by the proletariat, for a period of years or decades. In contrast Lenin saw the vital necessity for the peasants, who needed to rise up and overthrow the landlords, to ally with the proletariat in the coming revolution. He also saw the revolution in Russia as the opening shot in the European and international revolution. But Lenin’s formula 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 fought for the same programmatic conclusions as Trotsky advocated in his theory of “permanent revolution.” From 1905 Trotsky understood that the realisation of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in backward Russia was conceivable only under the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry. Moreover, the seizure of power by the working class in Russia would place on the order of the day not only democratic, but also socialist tasks. This would give a powerful impetus to international socialist revolution, which was necessary for the development of socialism in Russia. 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.
In contrast to both Lenin and Trotsky, the right wing in the Bolshevik Party at the time—exemplified by Kamenev—still had in mind a consolidation of the new bourgeois democracy. Kamenev and Zinoviev would oppose the seizure of power in October.
Fake Socialists Join the Kerensky Government
When the SRs and Mensheviks openly joined the Provisional Government in May, this was a political betrayal of the working masses in the soviets, but entirely in keeping with the SR and Menshevik programme. The Kerensky government was a bourgeois government; the presence of the Mensheviks and SRs was designed to fool the workers that their concerns could be met through the bourgeois state. These defensist “socialists” still dominated the soviets and when the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened in June it voted to approve Kerensky’s new offensive at the front.
But the mood in Petrograd was changing in favour of the Bolsheviks. When a demonstration in early June was banned by the Menshevik/SR-led Soviet, the Bolsheviks stood down. The Soviet leadership then called a demonstration on June 18, but the workers came out en masse under Bolshevik slogans, including: “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” “Down with the offensive” and “All power to the soviets!” By the start of July Petrograd was in semi-insurrection—a delegation from a machine gun unit met workers from the Putilov factory to tell them they had received an order on July 4 to go to the front, but had decided instead to go “not to the German front, against the German proletariat, but against their own capitalist ministers.”
By June the Bolsheviks had a near majority in the Petrograd factories and in some garrisons but it was far from clear that this support existed in the countryside or at the front. On more than one occasion in July the Bolsheviks had to restrain the workers in Petrograd from taking power because, without support in the countryside, they risked losing power again. After initially opposing the July demonstrations, the Bolshevik leadership decided that it was better to go with them. And when this wave broke, a period of severe counterrevolutionary repression followed. Bolsheviks were killed; Trotsky was arrested and Lenin went into hiding. The repression however was useful in helping the workers to understand the true nature of the supposedly “democratic” government of Kerensky, the Mensheviks and the SRs, which was in fact the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks and SRs emerged discredited from the July Days, whereas the Bolshevik Party emerged with increased support. The credibility of the Bolsheviks would also be enhanced by their role in the Kornilov episode that was to follow.
Military Defense Against Kornilov; No Political Support to Kerensky
Kornilov, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was a monarchist general of the “Black Hundred” type (Great Russian chauvinists who carried out pogroms against Jews). When he attempted a coup in August, the Bolsheviks quickly mobilised workers from the Petrograd factories to repulse him, in contrast to Kerensky who would have sat back while Petrograd was invaded. A victory for Kornilov would have meant not only a slaughter of the Bolsheviks and the workers and soldiers in the soviets but would also have been fatal for many of the compromisers as well. The failed coup by Kornilov showed that bourgeois democracy, as represented by the Provisional Government, was not viable in the historic sense in Russia in 1917. The real choices were represented by the Bolsheviks on one hand, and Kornilov and the forces of reaction on the other.
The Bolsheviks formed a military bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov, but gave him no political support. In fact they used the military bloc as a way of undermining Kerensky’s remaining political support. When Kronstadt sailors asked Trotsky if they shouldn’t arrest the government, he replied: “No, not yet.... Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterwards, we will settle with Kerensky.” Putting it another way he said Kerensky and Kornilov were “two variants of one and the same danger...the one chronic and the other acute” and one must: “Ward off the acute danger first, in order afterwards to settle with the chronic one.”
Lenin continued to fight against the conciliators in his own party who wanted to use the military bloc with the Provisional Government as an excuse to slide over into a political bloc with the Mensheviks and SRs, leading to a defensist policy on the war. The pressure on the Bolsheviks to adapt to defensism was greatly increased by the German capture of Riga on August 20. A conspiracy was entered into by the Kerensky government and the Anglo-French imperialists to surrender Petrograd to the Germans and in this way to suppress the revolution. Rodzianko, the former head of the State Duma, said: “Petrograd appears threatened” adding “I say, to hell with Petrograd.”
Occupation by the German army would have meant an end to the soviets and to dual power. Baltic sailors had been fighting to protect the approaches to Petrograd, the centre of the revolution, which was necessary. But Lenin was clear that the Bolsheviks must not become defensists, writing: “We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat
. Neither the capture of Riga nor the capture of Petrograd will make us defencists.” From prison, Trotsky said: “The fall of Riga is a cruel blow. The fall of Petersburg would be a misfortune. But the fall of the international policy of the Russian proletariat would be ruinous.” The Kornilov coup fizzled by the end of August. The Bolsheviks never abandoned their defeatist posture towards the Russian bourgeois government and even in this tricky situation maintained their internationalism.
Lenin’s Fight for the Seizure of State Power
In September the Bolsheviks obtained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet and, unlike in July, Bolshevik support among the masses outside the cities was growing rapidly. With land wars raging in the countryside, in which the peasants were seizing land, Lenin recognised that the time had come for the overthrow of the Kerensky government and the seizure of power by the proletariat. From mid-September on Lenin fought relentlessly to put the insurrection on the order of the day. The task he said was “armed uprising in Petrograd and Moscow (with its region), the seizing of power and the overthrow of the government. We must consider how to agitate for this without expressly saying as much in the press.” The Democratic Conference that took place at this time was a parliamentary diversion from the seizure of power, as was the Pre-Parliament.
The crucial upcoming event was the Second Congress of Soviets, which was very popular with the masses because it was sure to have a Bolshevik majority and which the Mensheviks and SRs kept trying to put off. Trotsky and [Yakov] Sverdlov thought that the seizure of power could coincide with the congress of the soviets; Lenin feared this was a smokescreen for not organising an insurrection, which was understandable given the opposition in the Central Committee to the seizure of power. On October 10 a crucial meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which Lenin managed to attend although he was still in hiding, voted for insurrection by a majority of ten to two. Zinoviev and Kamenev who were against went so far as to publish a letter in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper on October 18, a gross breach of discipline that alerted the class enemy to the planned insurrection. Lenin called for their expulsion from the party but they were saved by the revolution itself.
Despite Lenin’s worries, an insurrection was in fact being organised through the means of the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC). The MRC arose from a joint motion by the Mensheviks and SRs to disguise the fact that they were planning to move the Petrograd garrison to the front. To their surprise the Bolsheviks voted for the MRC, knowing they would have a majority in it, and when it was set up the Mensheviks boycotted it. A body that was legally identified with the soviets was an ideal vehicle for the Bolsheviks to prepare the seizure of power under the slogan of defending the upcoming congress of the soviets.
A decisive event towards the seizure of power was 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 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).
When the soldiers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet voted to transfer authority from army headquarters to the MRC, the Soviet had power in all but name.
The First Proletarian Socialist Revolution
On October 24 Kerensky foolishly 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 centres. Even at this point Lenin was frustrated with the lack of progress of the insurrection and went in disguise to Smolny, the Bolshevik headquarters, to oversee preparations personally. The battleship Aurora was still firing on the Winter Palace when the Second Congress of Soviets opened.
The October Revolution was no coup d’état. The seizure of power was based on the support of the majority of the proletariat. The actual military plans were not made public, but the masses of workers and soldiers were fully aware that the Bolsheviks intended to take power. Days before the revolution, the Bolsheviks organised rallies throughout Petrograd attended by hundreds of thousands who knew that the upcoming Congress of Soviets would decide the question of power. Workers raised their hands and dedicated themselves to defence of the proletarian power based on the soviets.
At the opening session of the Congress of Soviets, the Mensheviks and the right-wing SRs were enraged that the Bolsheviks had taken power and walked out, some declaring that they were going to the Winter Palace to die with the Provisional Government. Trotsky vehemently denounced these deserters, saying: “All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki, Socialist Revolutionaries, Bund—let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept away into the garbage-heap of history!” (quoted in Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed, 1919).
The Bolshevik Party refused to cede power to the conciliators who would hand it back to the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks and SRs immediately started organising a counterrevolutionary uprising against the Bolsheviks. Based in the Petrograd city Duma, the “All-Russian committee for salvation of the country and the revolution” tried to organise an insurrection using the Cossacks but it was quickly repulsed.
Consistent with their opposition to the seizure of power, the conciliators in the Bolshevik Party leadership around Kamenev argued for a coalition government but they backed down when it became clear that there was nobody to form a coalition with. This layer would re-emerge after Lenin’s death and the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, when a bureaucratic caste began to coalesce around J. V. Stalin in 1923-24.
One particular question that the Mensheviks and SRs seized on was the Bolsheviks’ dispersal of the Constituent Assembly after the October Revolution. During the spring and summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks had called for a Constituent Assembly, at a time when the Provisional Government refused to convoke one out of fear of sparking a peasant uprising. After the seizure of power this stage had passed but the Bolsheviks didn’t simply call off the elections to it because a Bolshevik majority could have strengthened the authority of the soviets among the backward masses, especially in the countryside. But the election list system did not reflect the dramatic shift towards the Bolsheviks that had taken place in recent months and this, combined with the nature of parliamentary elections, gave the petty bourgeoisie a disproportional weight of the vote. Faced with a Constituent Assembly dominated by the bourgeois Kadets as well as the SRs and Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks rightly demanded that it recognise the soviet power; the assembly refused and it was soon dissolved. I should note that for the good reformists of the SWP the Russian Revolution was all about democracy and so their account is that the Bolsheviks won the masses by promising bread, peace and land. The small detail they leave out is that in order to grant this, all that was needed was the smashing of the bourgeois state and overthrow of the Provisional Government, followed by the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
I want to conclude with Lenin’s opening remarks at the second session of the Congress of Soviets. He was met with tumultuous applause. When he spoke, his now-famous words were: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order!” There was a three-point agenda: an end to the war, land to the peasants, and establish a socialist dictatorship. One of the tasks that the Bolsheviks proceeded with after the revolution was regrouping revolutionaries across the world into a new international, as a necessary instrument to spread the revolution to the advanced countries of Europe, and to bring about world socialism. Our fight for Leninist-Trotskyist parties worldwide is a continuation of this task.