In the face of harsh oppression under the Russian tsar, socialists in Finland had built a powerful workers’ movement, with strike waves in 1905 through 1906. The Russian revolutions of 1917 – ending tsarist rule then bringing about the world’s first workers’ state – unleashed a new wave of mass struggle. For a while, the workers could have taken power. PER OLSSON, of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden), writes. Originally published in Socialism Today, Issue 215 (February 2018), the political journal of the Socialist Party (sister party of Socialist Alternative in England and Wales).
The socialist revolution in Russia was met with enthusiasm from workers and the oppressed around the world. Not least in neighbouring Finland, which had been under Russian control since 1809 – a Grand Duchy in the tsarist empire the Bolsheviks referred to as a “prison house of nations”. A week after the revolution, the Finnish workers’ movement launched a general strike and, for a few days, held power in most parts of the country. The strike, from 14-19 November 1917, was a powerful demonstration of strength and shook the capitalist ruling class to its core. However, because it was called off when it was on the verge of a revolutionary breakthrough, the weakened government was given time to recover and to prepare its revenge.
The Finnish civil war – a class war – from late January to May 1918, was a direct consequence of the capitalists’ fear that Russia’s October revolution would be followed by a socialist revolution in Finland, too. The counter-revolutionary White Guards, supported by German imperialism which sent weapons and 10,000 soldiers, defeated the Finnish revolution. The White terror, which promised to “turn the Reds into a pariah caste”, provides a horrific example of how far reaction is prepared to go. The extent of the violence can only be compared to the massacres that ended the Paris Commune in 1871 when more than 30,000 people perished.
In Finland in 1918, 30,000 workers were also killed. Of them, 10,000 were executed in the weeks following the end of hostilities, and 13,000 died in the prison camps set up after the civil war. Close to 3% of the country’s population, 80,000 people, were imprisoned. What took place also gives a terrifying picture of what would have happened in Russia and the other newly formed Soviet republics had the White counter-revolutionary troops, supported by 21 foreign armies, won the civil war that broke out there in 1918.
The counter-revolution’s fury was the culmination of a crisis that had arisen in Finland immediately after Russia’s February revolution (March in the Gregorian calendar) and the tsar’s fall in early 1917. The dramatic developments in Finland 1917-18 make up a story filled with dearly bought lessons that can be summed up with the conclusion that the socialist revolution needs a party and a leadership in order to win.
The rising workers’ movement
In Russia and Finland the early years of the 20th century were marked by organisation and struggle. In 1899 Finland’s workers’ party was founded, changing its name to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1903. The SDP quickly became a mass party. Outbreaks of struggle in tsarist Russia and Finland influenced each other. For example, the first Russian revolution in 1905 became the starting point of an extensive struggle in Finland for democracy, national self-determination and social reforms: “On 13 April 1905, 11,000 Helsinki workers demonstrated in favour of universal suffrage. It was, up to that point, the biggest demonstration in the history of Finland. The closing meeting gathered 35,000 participants”. (Finland’s Röda Garden [Red Guard], by Carsten Palmær and Raimo Mankinen)
At the end of October and early November 1905, Finland’s workers launched a general strike, with further strike waves in 1906. During this time they were compelled to form their own defence forces. The capitalists and large landowners also armed themselves, setting up so-called ‘protection corps’. In August 1906, a bourgeois militia attacked striking workers at Hakaniemi Market Square in Helsinki. After that they became ‘slaughter corps’ in the eyes of the workers.
As a result of these revolutionary struggles, the tsar’s regime was forced to make concessions. The old Finnish Diet was abolished and replaced by a new parliament where the 200 members would be elected by universal suffrage with equal voting rights for men and women. Finland became the first country in Europe where women had the right to vote, and the first country in the world where women had the right to stand in elections. In addition, 1905 and 1906 saw a rapid influx of new members which pushed the workers’ movement to the left: “By the end of 1906, the organised workers were stronger than ever. In 1904, the Social Democratic Party had 16,600 members and in 1906, just over 85,000”. (Finland’s Röda Garden)
The first free elections in 1907 were a huge success for the SDP. At its congress the year before, it had taken several steps to the left and adopted a programme that linked the social struggle with that for national self-determination. It became the largest party in parliament with 80 seats. In relation to its population at least, the Finnish workers’ movement was at that point the strongest in the world.
However, the democratic breakthroughs and concessions on self-determination won by the masses would not be permanent. Again and again, the hopes for far-reaching social improvements and, in particular, an end to farmers’ forced tenancies and the terrible conditions endured by farm workers, were extinguished. It had been on these struggles, among others, that the early social democracy was built.
Despite universal suffrage, parliament was shut down time and time again, and increased autonomy existed only on paper. Municipal voting rights were still severely limited. Together with the fact that the workers’ movement had to struggle against attacks from both tsarism and Finland’s capitalists and landowners, that meant that the strong fighting traditions that emerged in 1905-06 had been kept alive even after workers’ action had decreased after 1907. Moreover, bureaucratism and parliamentarianism were not as ensconced in the Finnish workers’ movement as it had been in Sweden and western Europe.
Eventually, however, tsarism was able to consolidate its totalitarian rule once again. Parliament was repeatedly dissolved and Finland was subjected to several Russification campaigns. The outbreak of the first world war in 1914 led to increased repression with a ban on strikes. More and more Russian troops were stationed in the country, effectively putting it under Russian military dictatorship. Nonetheless, Finnish workers escaped conscription into the armed forces – the sons of the upper class, serving as officers in the Russian imperialist army, took part enthusiastically. One of those Finnish officers was Gustaf Mannerheim who would later become the commander of the White Guards and its chief executioner.
Russia’s February revolution
During the first years of the war, the tsar’s investments and construction projects in Finland, designed to make a German invasion more difficult, gave rise to an economic boom and further industrialisation. But there was also a shortage of goods, and prices continued to rise. The lack of provisions led to a particularly deep crisis in the big cities. In 1917, the war boom came to an end and tens of thousands of workers were forced into unemployment. The previous year, the SDP had won a historic election victory, with an outright majority (103 seats), although the parliament had been shut down again, on the orders of the tsar.
It was not until Russia’s February revolution that the Finnish parliament met. Its socialist majority was a direct threat to both the capitalists and big landowners in Finland. Eventually, it also became a threat to the Provisional Government in Russia – which had initially been welcomed by workers and the rural poor in Finland who jubilantly united with the radicalised Russian soldiers. The fall of the tsar opened up an offensive by Finland’s workers to recapture what had been lost during the war years, as well as for an eight-hour working day and municipal voting rights.
The new Provisional Government in Russia insisted on the formation of a coalition government in Finland and announced that it would remain a non-sovereign assembly. The Provisional Government’s attitude and its willingness to continue the first world war – on the side of US, British and French imperialism – meant that it quickly came into conflict with the masses in Finland, as well as in Russia. The parties of the Provisional Government were only prepared to give Finland very limited and conditional autonomy. In Russia, it was only the Bolsheviks who fully supported Finland’s right to self-determination, including the right to form a state.
The leadership of the Finnish SDP, despite extensive internal opposition to ‘ministerial socialism’, eventually agreed to enter the coalition government (the Senate). It was made up of an equal number of members from the bourgeoisie and the SDP. On the capitalists’ side, however, there was also the Russian governor-general who held a casting vote. The coalition was thus a bourgeois government, in spite of the SDP’s majority in parliament.
A time to strike
The spring of 1917 became a time of strikes. The metal workers were the first to come out in April and they decided that, from then on, they would only work eight hours per day. “When the workers in many places decided to apply the eight-hour day, the bourgeoisie had nothing to oppose them with. The Finnish military had been dissolved by the tsar in 1901 and the hated gendarmerie was dissolved after the March [February, Russian] revolution. The bourgeoisie was left without a police force and a military, and in Helsinki, for example, the city council was forced to declare that the eight-hour day had been implemented locally”. (Finland’s Röda Garden) Tenant farmers and rural workers also launched an offensive for reduced working hours.
By the end of 1917, the SDP had an incredible 120,000 members, and the Finnish trade union federation (Suomen Ammattijärjestö – SAJ) had 160,000. The new members tended to be more left wing, and an impatient opposition to the leadership’s willingness to cooperate with the capitalist establishment began to emerge. The workers’ movement and the bourgeoisie were engaged in a decisive battle about what class should form the new state power after the fall of the tsar. In the cities, the workers’ militias made up the new police force and the capitalists hurried to form the protection corps to defend their own class interests.
The Finnish capitalist class had an ally in German imperialism, which sought to expand eastwards and planned to take control of Finland as part of its war against Russia. Of course, German imperialism tried to conceal its plans for conquest by claiming to support Finnish independence. This was an empty promise but the Finnish bourgeoisie were satisfied that they could now expect military backing from the Kaiser in their attempts to build a force against the workers. A number of years previously, a Finnish army ranger battalion had been formed and trained in Germany, fighting on the side of the Kaiser. About 1,000 men from this battalion – after a purge of those suspected of having left-wing sympathies – were sent back to Finland at the beginning of 1918 to join the counter-revolutionary White Guards.
At the same time that the revolutionary crisis was coming to a head in Finland, the influence of the Bolsheviks was growing in Russia, and among Russian soldiers in Finland. Not without reason, they were known as the Russian revolution’s red flank. The SDP conference in June 1917 was attended by Russian activists from the Bolshevik party and the right-wing social-democratic Mensheviks.
The Bolsheviks were represented by Alexandra Kollontai who “at the behest of Lenin, supported the demand for immediate Finnish independence while criticising the Russian Provisional Government for oppressing small nations and peoples. Her speech received a huge response from many delegates. The Menshevik, Lydia Cederbaum, was met with much less enthusiasm when she said in her speech that the issue of Finland’s independence should instead be settled by a future Russian national assembly”. (Tobias Berglund and Niclas Sennerteg, Finska Inbördeskriget – The Finnish Civil War)
At the same conference, the SDP agreed to join the Zimmerwald movement which had united socialist parties and activists who had raised a socialist, internationalist flag against the war after the collapse of the Second International in 1914.
In July, the SDP-dominated parliament voted for the Power Act, which gave control to the Finnish parliament on all issues except foreign and defence policy. This received mass support. At the same time, the parliament introduced a law on an eight-hour working day and municipal voting rights. Russia’s Provisional Government rejected it, however, showing its hostility towards Finland’s claim to national self-determination.
The Russian government – a coalition including the Mensheviks and peasant-based Social Revolutionaries – was prepared to introduce military rule in Finland. New troops were sent to replace those regarded by Alexander Kerensky’s administration as ‘unreliable’ and under the influence of the Bolsheviks. Yet even these troops would soon support the Bolsheviks, so they did not become the instruments of repression Kerensky had hoped for.
The Finnish capitalist class worked in tandem with Kerensky. Together with Russia’s highest representative in Finland, governor-general Mikhail Stakhovich, the Senate voted to dissolve the parliament and repeal the Power Act. This also stopped the introduction of the eight-hour day and universal suffrage in municipal elections. New elections were called for October. The SDP majority in parliament refused to subordinate itself to the dictates of the Provisional Government and the capitalist ruling class. They did not participate in the puppet Senate which served as a caretaker administration up to the October election.
Preparing for civil war
During the autumn, the situation became tenser on all fronts. Food shortages and the class struggle increased. In 1917, about 500 strikes took place and workers’ militias emerged again, especially in the industrialised areas of southern Finland. Landowners’ and capitalists’ ‘protection corps’ were also formed and would become the backbone of the counter-revolutionary army. After more than a hundred had been set up in both August and September 1917, there were protection corps in at least two-thirds of the country’s municipalities.
The SDP, which had declared the October election illegal, participated in it nonetheless. Despite gaining 60,000 more votes than in 1916 and remaining the largest party, with 92 seats, the SDP lost its majority in parliament. It also had to deal with the fact that many workers and rural poor began to think it was not worth voting; it took more than parliamentary seats to win social and national liberation.
There was an uneasy standoff, as the Russian revolutionary, Victor Serge, described: “But just as the Finnish proletariat could scarcely resign itself before this electoral defeat, so the Finnish bourgeois could as little remain satisfied with such a precarious ‘victory’. Matters had to be settled with an extra-parliamentary conclusion. The bourgeois had long foreseen this outcome, and made conscientious preparations for a civil war. It was a showdown which the Finnish Social Democratic Party, formed over 20 years in the mould of German Social Democracy, had hoped to avoid”. (Year One of the Russian Revolution)
The new parliament and Senate were unable to and had no interest in solving the social problems. Their focus was on trying to consolidate a bourgeois state power. This inevitably led to a sharpening of the revolutionary crisis and escalating attacks against the workers and their organisations. On the other side, the election was followed by increased radicalisation. The workers’ movement began to take on seriously the task of forming militias in response to the growing number of protection corps and the White Guards under construction. Unfortunately, it did not happen in a coordinated way, not as a conscious political move as part of the preparations for a revolutionary socialist struggle.
In contrast, the capitalists had begun serious preparations to drown the workers’ movement in blood from the autumn of 1917. On 3 October, a meeting was held between Helsinki’s big-business leaders and bankers and the future staff of the White Guards, where it was claimed that the country could only be rescued by armed troops. The financiers promised a loan for the purchase of weapons, which the government promised to pay back (from taxes) as soon as it had defeated the working class. Weapons from Germany began arriving for the counter-revolutionary forces.
Power in the workers’ hands
The Bolshevik-led revolution then quickly pulled the Finnish workers’ movement further to the left, particularly at the grassroots level. On the other hand, the right wing of the SDP and the ever-wavering centre opposed a revolutionary insurgency. They claimed that the time was not right or voiced fears that ‘we might not win’. In fact, in November 1917 the time was more than ripe. In order to implement even the relatively modest ‘We Demand’ programme put forward on 8 November – for social reforms, the eight-hour day, etc – along with voting rights, dealing with food shortages and disarming the protection corps, a revolutionary seizure of power was necessary.
The influence of the Bolshevik revolution was also reflected by the leadership of the SDP and the SAJ union federation. In the workers’ Revolutionary Central Council they formed, there was some support for the demand for a revolutionary takeover, and the SAJ called for a revolution if parliament did not accept the We Demand programme. This meant, however, that the general strike called by the leadership did not have the character, initially, of a struggle for power. Rather, it was limited to a demonstration of strength. This would turn out to be a disastrous decision that split the workers’ movement, even though the left held back from challenging the right wing and the centre. The result of this mistaken striving for unity was that the wing that opposed revolution was allowed to set the tone.
During the general strike that began on 14 November the workers actually took over large parts of Finland. By this time, the counter-revolution had not yet established its military superiority. The capitalist class was paralysed and confused. The protection corps could have been disarmed. In fact, the parliament and Senate rushed to introduce the eight-hour day and universal suffrage in municipal elections. They even introduced their own version of the Power Act in an attempt to cut across the workers’ mobilisation – reform from above to prevent revolution from below. It failed. The general strike was enormously successful.
The strike’s success also frightened the right wing of the workers’ movement, and it wanted it to end quickly. Most of all, it wanted to find a way back to parliamentarianism and cooperation with the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, there was no alternative leadership that could accomplish the urgent task of consolidating the power that the workers had conquered during the five days of action.
‘The general strike is over, the revolution continues!’ With that slogan, the strike was called off. To try to at least give the impression that they were prepared to continue the struggle, the promise was made to work to form a ‘Red Senate’ in parliament. Yet this slogan also contained right-wing SDP hopes that they would be able to form a new coalition government with representatives of the ruling class. The capitalists, for their part, had no interest in cooperating with the right wing, as they no longer believed it could control the workers, particularly the movement’s militias. The bourgeoisie instead used their majority in the Senate-government to advance the counter-revolution, forming the White Guards. This led to the Senate, under prime minister Pehr Svinhuvfud, becoming ever more authoritarian.
The general strike was ended after the SDP leadership had refused to form a new workers’ government on the basis of the strike committees and workers’ control that had begun to be established locally. The demand that the workers should take power was actually discussed at the Revolutionary Central Council on 16 November. It won a majority at first. After pressure from the right, however, it was rejected subsequently by a single vote.
A few days later, the same assembly voted to end the strike by a small majority: “The aim of the moderate socialist leaders was, through the strike, to divert the people’s attention away from revolution and instead create a situation where conditions could be improved through reforms. However, this failed and, instead, the leadership of the party lost further control over the masses”. (Finland 1917-20, Volume 1) The workers effectively had power in their hands, but their leaders’ decisions meant that the capitalist class was given time to recover and to arm itself. This was devastating – just as the threat of civil war was imminent.
In the absence of a revolutionary alternative – like that provided by the Bolshevik party in Russia – this paved the way for the bloody defeat of the class war in 1918. Before that, and frightened by both the general strike and Russia’s October revolution, the bourgeois Senate announced Finland’s independence at the beginning of December. The SDP voted against this, putting forward its own declaration which included recognition of the Soviet government. It was the struggle of the workers in Finland and Russia that achieved it. When the Finnish government finally requested independence, it was immediately accepted by the Bolshevik-led Soviet government on 31 December 1917.
After that, the countdown to civil war began. The workers’ movement was divided, with a revolutionary wing with strong support in the larger cities, especially among the Red Guards that the SDP leadership had lost control of. After the general strike, however, the ruling class had been given the time it needed to prepare for class war. At first this was conducted secretly. Then, in mid-January 1918, the Senate handed over power to Gustaf Mannerheim. He was given free rein to ‘restore order’.
The breakthrough of the workers’ movement in Finland is a source of inspiration and a powerful example of the strength of collective struggle. But when Finland officially marked its 100th anniversary on 6 December, it was not the workers’ struggle or Russia’s October revolution that was celebrated. Rather, it was the counter-revolution of the capitalist government and ruling class. They bear the responsibility for a massive historical crime: the massacre of 30,000 workers and poor in 1918. That should never be forgotten. In the struggle for socialism today, the memory of previous generations’ struggles should be honoured and kept alive. It is only through the workers and the oppressed taking power, as in Russia a century ago, that the world can be freed from all violence and oppression.