This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the defining event of the 20th Century. While the working class of Paris had briefly taken power in 1871, the Russian Revolution was the first sustained attempt to create a workers state.
It occurred in the midst of World War I as millions of workers and peasants across Europe were being slaughtered for the profits and imperial glory of their respective ruling classes. The Russian Revolution sparked a revolutionary wave that swept across Europe between 1917 and 1923 and came close to toppling capitalism in its heartland.
The following article, part of a series published by our British sister organization, recounts the crucial events of April 1917. The Revolution had begun in February, but it was not until October that the working class took power. The intervening months were decisive and even 90 years later deserve careful study by all interested in ending the rule of capital.
Whereas the Russian Revolution of February 1917, which overthrew the absolute monarchy of Tsarism, is seen as justified by most capitalist historians, the October 1917 Revolution, which brought the working class to power, is written off as a coup by a small minority. Usually the entire responsibility for this supposed coup is laid at the feet of Vladimir Lenin – who returned to Russia from exile at the start of April 1917 – and 90 years later is still slandered as dictatorial and even deranged.
In reality, the October Revolution was the first democratic working-class socialist revolution in history. Throughout 1917, it was the masses, and above all the working class, who moved history forward. Nonetheless, it is true that without Lenin and Trotsky as individuals and without the party Lenin led, known as the Bolsheviks (the majority), the working class would not have come to power in 1917.
This is not to suggest there is even a grain of truth in the lies of right-wing historians that Lenin had an undemocratic or dictatorial grip on the Bolsheviks, or that the Bolsheviks had such a grip on the working class. On the contrary, when Lenin arrived from exile in April 1917 he was in a tiny minority within the Bolshevik Party and the Bolsheviks were a tiny minority in the Soviets (the workers’ councils that arose out of the revolution).
Lenin was able to convince the Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks the working class, not by force but by “patient explanation” (the words used by Lenin himself in his April Theses). This was successful because Lenin’s program matched the objective needs of the working class.
Capitalists Take Power
February 1917 saw the working class of Petrograd take to the streets demanding the abdication of the Tsar. However, while the working class overthrew Tsarism in February, it was not sufficiently conscious and organized to take power. It was the capitalist class that formed the new government. One leader of the capitalist Kadet Party summed up the feelings of the capitalist class: “If we do not take power, others will take it for us, those rotters who have already elected all sorts of scoundrels in the factories.”
In the English and French revolutions of the 17th and 18th Centuries, the capitalist class, backed by the poor masses, had overthrown the feudal regimes and established the basis for the development of capitalism. However, in Russia the capitalist class, as a result of its belated development, was tied by a thousand threads to both the semi-feudal Russian aristocracy and the global imperialist powers.
These factors, combined with its mortal fear of revolutionary movements of the working class, meant it was utterly incapable of playing a progressive role. When the working class rose up, the liberal capitalists stepped into the leadership vacuum created by the abdication of the Tsar, not because they were capable of taking society forward, but to protect their own interests by preventing the working class from taking power. Their attitude at each stage was based on how best to safeguard the interests of the existing elite that was dominated by the feudal landowners. This meant they were incapable of solving the crucial land question.
At the same time, the Provisional Government was not the only power in the land – dual power existed. The Soviets, or workers’ councils, had risen organically from the revolution in 1905, and did so again in 1917.
However, the reformist socialists, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, that had assumed the leadership of the Soviets did not want to take power; on the contrary, they were anxious it should remain in the hands of the capitalist class. They voluntarily ceded the power they held as the leadership of the Soviets to the Provisional Government.
Before the return of Lenin, the Bolshevik leadership did not put a clear alternative to the Menshevik position. In fact, Kamenev and Stalin, who returned from exile before Lenin, succeeded in moving the Bolsheviks to the right, to a position of supporting the Provisional Government from the outside.
The totally counter-revolutionary nature of the Provisional Government was not revealed by its phraseology, which it dressed up as revolutionary under the pressure of the masses, but by its deeds. The ministers in charge of the army, the police, and the state bureaucracy were all outright supports of the feudal dictatorship that the revolution had overthrown. The huge landed estates were untouched.
Russia continued to send its soldiers to die in the interests of capitalism, and particularly Anglo-French imperialism, in World War I. No date was set for the calling of a Constituent Assembly.
It was to this situation that Lenin returned in 1917. He immediately began arguing to change the policy of the Bolshevik Party. In his April Theses, Lenin argued that the Republic established from the February Revolution was a capitalist government and the war it was waging was an imperialist war.
The Bolsheviks wanted power to be passed to the Soviets and for an end to the Provisional Government, but the latter rested upon the support of the leadership of the Soviets – the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, who in turn were at that stage largely trusted by the people. The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the soviets but would be able to win over the masses with a combination of patient explanation and the masses’ experience of events.
Lenin’s position sent shockwaves through the Bolsheviks, many of whom considered that he had become out of touch while abroad; a few even suggested he had gone mad. When he first put his theses to the Committee of the Petrograd Bolsheviks, it was defeated 13 to 2.
Both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks described themselves as Marxists. However, their conceptions of the 1917 revolutions were utterly different. The conception of Kamenev and Stalin prior to Lenin’s return had more in common with that of the Mensheviks than that of the Bolsheviks after April 1917.
The Mensheviks essentially believed it would be necessary to have a long period of development of capitalist democracy before the possibility of socialism would be posed in Russia.
By contrast, even prior to 1917 the Bolsheviks had clearly understood that the Russian capitalist class was incapable of carrying out the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution; that is, the elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations in the land, the foundation of the nation state, and the introduction of democracy – the right to vote, the right to join a trade union, and so on. Instead, they believed these tasks would fall on the shoulders of the working class and peasantry. However, they had not drawn all the necessary conclusions from this.
The working class was a small minority in Russia in 1917. The most numerous group in society by far was the middle classes, primarily the peasantry. The poor peasants were extremely oppressed under Tsarism and played an important role in the revolution. However, in general the heterogeneous and scattered character of the peasantry means it cannot act independently but is pulled behind either the ruling or working class.
If the working class does not give a conscious lead, inevitably the peasantry will be pulled behind the ruling class. But the pre-1917 formula of the Bolsheviks left open who would play the leading role – the working class or the peasantry.
Lenin now declared the reality of the February Revolution meant that “th[is] formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead.” Lenin explained that the Soviets represented a government of the working class and peasantry. However, the middle class elements in the soviets leadership were voluntarily ceding ground to the capitalist Provisional Government. A struggle had to be waged by the most class-conscious elements of the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party, to convince the Soviets that they should take power.
As far back as 1905, Trotsky had argued in his theory of permanent revolution that there was no possibility of capitalism qualitatively developing the economically backward countries, including Russia, and that the working class, with the support of the poor peasants, would have to move in an uninterrupted fashion from the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution to the socialist revolution. In 1917, faced with the concrete reality of the February Revolution, Lenin correctly drew the same conclusion.
Lenin and Trotsky’s prognosis was correct; and the working class led the poor peasantry to a victorious Russian Revolution, which in turn led to a wave of revolutions worldwide. However, in Germany, Hungary, and other countries where revolutions took place, the lack of parties worthy of the working class, with the same qualities the Bolsheviks possessed in 1917, meant the working class did not come to power. This led to the isolation, and ultimately the bureaucratic degeneration, of the workers’ state.
However, Lenin and Trotsky’s conception retains all of its relevance today. Internationally, the gap between rich and poor has grown to unprecedented levels. In 1960, the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% was estimated at 30:1; by the end of 2005, it had reached a staggering 150:1. For the poor of the neo-colonial world, 21st Century capitalism is a nightmare.
None of the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution have been fully completed. Even where a form of democracy has been gained in the post-independence period, it is generally truncated, distorted, and incomplete. Imperialism, in order to further its own interests, is prepared to wage war, crush democracy, and back reactionary feudal regimes. In Iraq, U.S. imperialism’s supposed goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East has resulted in a horrific and bloody war and occupation.
The recent entirely-fraudulent Nigerian elections reveal the reality of democracy in many countries of the neo-colonial world. While the imperialist powers have criticized the Nigerian elections, they are not calling for their cancellation. Fearing popular movements, for imperialism stability to exploit Nigerian oil and resources has to come first.
Today in the neo-colonial world, the capitalist class is more closely than ever tied to the feudal landlords and imperialism. Even more than in 1917, the working class, with the support of the poor masses, is the only force capable of taking society forward.
The disorientation of the workers’ movement following the collapse of the Soviet Union means the mass of the working class internationally is not yet convinced of its potential power to build a new society. However, on the basis of their experience of struggle against the brutal attacks capitalism is raining down, a growing minority are drawing socialist conclusions, as the mass of workers will in the future.
Nonetheless, stageism – the idea that in the neo-colonial countries it is possible to first establish capitalist democracy, independent from imperialism, and then move to socialism in the distant future – will undoubtedly feature again in the workers’ movement as it is rebuilt.
This is already the case to some extent in Venezuela and Bolivia, where popular governments have been elected that carry out measures to improve the lives of the poor. However, while the leaders in both countries – Chavez and Morales – describe themselves as socialist, neither government has broken with capitalism. In both countries, there are systematic attempts by the capitalist class to sabotage these democratically-elected governments.
Without fundamental change – the bringing of the commanding heights of the economy into democratic public ownership – it is inevitable that at a certain stage the capitalist class will find a means to suppress these revolutionary movements, whether by the brutal armed force used in Chile 1973 or by the systematic rolling back of past revolutionary gains used in Nicaragua and elsewhere.
By the end of April 1917, Lenin had won a majority of the Bolsheviks to his position after an open and very democratic debate. He was able to convince the Bolsheviks particularly by relying on the instincts of the worker-Bolsheviks and the tradition of the party, what Trotsky called its irreconcilable attitude to the ruling classes and its hostility to all halfway measures.
This attitude also led to a marked growth in the Bolsheviks. At the party conference that met on April 24-29, 149 delegates represented 79,000 party members, of whom 15,000 lived in Petrograd. This single fact exposes the myth that the Bolsheviks were a tightly-controlled vanguard party. Quite the reverse, during the revolutionary movements of 1917 the Bolsheviks flung the doors of the party open. The workers who joined were taking part in a revolution – they had a newfound confidence and thirst for ideas. They never would have joined or remained in a monolithic, undemocratic party. On the contrary, the Bolshevik Party was a hotbed of wide-ranging debate and discussion.
As the Bolsheviks grew, their ideas were also gaining support. In the workers’ districts of Petrograd, they were winning a majority in one district Soviet after another.
Meanwhile, the Provisional Government was beginning to reveal its true colors to the masses. From the start, the Provisional Government had been forced to disguise its continued participation in World War I behind the cover of defending Russia from foreign invasion.
This position was initially accepted by broad swathes of the population. However, the foreign minister, Miliukov, now ordered a clear offensive by Russian troops. He hoped the offensive would succeed and thereby increase patriotic feeling and undermine the Soviets. A nod and a wink was also given to General Kornilov to take the opportunity that Muliukov hoped to create to attack the workers’ demonstrations and crush the revolution.
Growing Antiwar Mood
The Russian troops, however, had other ideas. Those on the front refused to take part in the offensive. They saw defending the country as one thing, attacking quite another. In Petrograd, the troops took to the streets, soon followed by the workers, demanding down with Miliukov. Some, including Bolsheviks, added the demand down with the Provisional Government.
Lenin, who was so clear on the need to bring an end to the Provisional Government, also understood that this demand was premature. While the most advanced sections of the working class were beginning to understand the role of the Provisional Government, the masses, particularly those outside Petrograd, still had illusions in it.
It was necessary to continue to patiently explain. The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks put it thus: “The motto ‘Down with the Provisional Government’ is incorrect at present because without a solid (that is conscious and organized) majority of the people on the side of the revolutionary proletariat, such a motto is either an empty phrase, or leads to attempts of an adventurous character.”
This clear and serious approach has enormous lessons for today. Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the one hand recognized the objective need for the working class to put an end to the Provisional Government. At the same time, they had an accurate and realistic appraisal of the level of understanding of the masses, and worked to win them over with clear propaganda and demands designed to help them draw the necessary conclusions about the need for a fundamental change in society.
The demands they raised included the nationalization of the landed estates and the banks. The Bolsheviks combined this with being the most effective fighters in the day-to-day struggles of the working class.
Today, the gap between the objective need for socialism and workers’ understanding is far greater than during a revolution when consciousness develops very quickly. However, if we are to be effective in building mass support for socialist ideas in the coming years, all serious socialists need to take fundamentally the same approach as the Bolsheviks.
The Miliukov crisis was the start of a growing discontent at the continuation of the war. Miliukov himself was forced to resign. The Provisional Government needed the Soviets to save it, and appealed for more Soviet representatives to join the government. While many workers initially saw this as a good thing, thinking it would shift the Provisional Government to the left, the Bolsheviks correctly understood that the Soviets were being used as a cover for the capitalists to cling to power.
The day before, Trotsky had returned from exile and was invited to speak as the leader of the 1905 Petrograd Soviet. He declared: The real single power that will save Russia will only arrive when the next step is taken, the transfer of power into the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ deputies; then will begin a new epoch.
He concluded: Three revolutionary articles of faith: do not trust the capitalists, control the leaders, rely only on your own force. Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks were in a minority that day, but over the coming months they were able to convince the majority of the working class of their position, and thereby change history.