October 1917: The Bolsheviks Take Power

November 7 (new-style calendar, October 25 old-style) marks the 70th anniversary of the greatest event in human history. For the first time ever, a state came into existence which represented the majority of society, the laboring masses, as against a narrow class of exploiters. Through their elected soviets (councils) the workers, peasants and soldiers of Russia took power into their own hands.

Except for the few far-sighted among them, the world’s bankers, capitalists and war-profiteers paused only momentarily in their scramble for war booty. But the workers in the factories and the soldiers knee-deep in mud did not fail to register the tremors beneath their feet. For them, the events in Russia were a signal of hope, ushering in a new period of struggle of class against class instead of worker against worker. The soviet state became an inspiration and a call to arms for workers everywhere.

The Bolshevik Party was subjected to fierce repression in July: its papers banned, its leaders jailed or in hiding, all subjected to the slanderous accusation that they were “German agents”. But by the end of October, the Party was in power, at the head of a mighty movement of the working class.

These titanic events, in just four short months, are a textbook demonstration of the sharp changes in the mood and political consciousness of the masses in a revolutionary situation. Although the Bolsheviks provided the necessary leadership – the subjective factor without which the October revolution would not have taken place – it was the elemental movement of the many-millioned Russian people that gave an unstoppable impetus to the revolution.

After the suppression of the Bolsheviks, reactionaries of all stripes and shadings began to raise their heads with new confidence and hope. Officers began to demand salutes, ignoring the soldiers’ committees; factory owners in increasing numbers began to threaten to close their factories to break the power of the workers’ committees. Thus, the ground was prepared for the attempted coup by General Kornilov.

Workers’ Movement

But the reaction was not too deep and long lasting, and, before the Kornilov coup dissolved in ignominy, the workers’ movement had already begun to recover. Even in late July, the Bolsheviks had begun to regain ground in the soldiers’ meetings, in the navy, and in the workers’ districts.

In reply to the capitalists’ lockout a wave of strikes spread all over Russia, bringing into action for the first time completely fresh and untried layers of the working class. While the more experienced and battle-hardened sections of the workers bided their time – beginning to realize that a different, more serious struggle was necessary – others were catching up in their understanding of the class forces and the issues at stake.

The workers began to ponder over the slanders against the Bolsheviks: is it a coincidence, they asked, that the same people who exploited them and denounced their committees are also the loudest shouters about “German agents”?

The soldiers mulled over the same problems: why was it always the worst and most repressive officers who foamed at the mouth and went into apoplexy at the mention of Bolshevism?

The workers and soldiers knew that they themselves were not German spies and yet every action, every democratic demand, was denounced as “Bolshevism”. There was hardly a factory or military unit that didn’t have its “Bolshevik” who in reality had never been near the Party.


An enormous polarization was taking place within Russian society. Soldiers’ committees demanded and end to the interminable and bloody war; peasants demanded – and in hundreds of cases occupied – the landowners’ estates; workers took over factories to break lockouts and management sabotage. The Provisional Government, meanwhile, went on with the war, urged “patience” and “restraint” and denounced the Bolsheviks.

The Kornilov revolt in August petered out into a farce, as Bolshevik soldiers and workers agitated among his troops, spreading the seed of revolution. But the revolt gave a powerful impetus to the leftward shift of the masses.

The warnings of the Bolsheviks, about the Provisional Government preparing the ground for reaction, were remembered by the workers and soldiers. The worst slanderers of all had even supported the attempted coup. The leaders of other “left” parties, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks, had scoffed at the Bolsheviks’ dire predictions before August and were now discredited in the eyes of their own members.

There now began a floodtide of support towards the Bolshevik Party, a tide that would carry the Party through October and beyond. Bolshevism, already synonymous with any forward movement or struggle of the masses, was thus made the property of the masses. The Party ranks swelled out of all proportion to their former size.

The SRs lost hundreds of thousands of supporters among the soldiers. These became millions. In the cities, the Mensheviks were virtually wiped out, as workers surged towards the Party of Lenin and Trotsky.

Soviets all over the country followed the lead of Petrograd and returned a majority of Bolshevik delegates. Factory and shop committees, trade union committees, military units and land committees began to be transformed. The soviets of February and March had been weakened by their SR and Menshevik leadership, vacillating and compromising with the capitalist class, tail-ending the Provisional Government, itself slavishly following the policies of the imperialist powers. The July reaction had dealt yet more blows to the soviets.

But now the revival began. The delegations to the established soviets underwent a rapid transformation. At the same time millions of workers and peasants in the far-flung corners of Russia began to establish them for the first time.

As the soviets revived, they were Bolshevized. In the bigger soviets the Bolsheviks were stronger than in the average; among the soldier-worker masses the Party was stronger than in the soviets. Similarly, the closer the committees were to the workers on the shop floor, the sooner there was a majority for the program of Lenin.

After Kornilov had shown the threat of reaction, new leaders crowded to the front in these bodies, forming special committees for the defense of the revolution: military committees, often charged by the soviet with arming the workers, arresting reactionaries and deploying troops. These new leaders, hardened and steeled by events, were overwhelmingly Bolsheviks. The October revolution was to be no “putsch” by a small minority. In their millions the workers, soldiers and peasants looked at the program they needed: “Bread, Peace and Land”, realized which Party supported it, and acted accordingly. If that’s Bolshevism, they reasoned, then I’m a Bolshevik!

In Finland, the Bolsheviks formed a majority coalition in the soviets with the left SRs who had split from the old party. Immediately, the Finnish soviets commanded the loyalty of the working class and the soldiers stationed there. When the Provisional Government demanded that certain units withdraw from Finland, they refused, citing the authority of the Finland Soviets. Finland had already had its “October”, weeks before the Russian empire.

After having dropped the slogan in the weeks after the July events, the Bolshevik Party once again raised the demand of a Soviet Government. In the first week of September the key Petrograd soviet voted for this policy. Others soon followed: Finland, Moscow, Kiev, in days the trickle turning into a flood.

The whole of Russian society was polarizing into two irreconcilable camps. As the attempted coup had shown, the capitalist class now saw no way out other than outright counter-revolution. But the workers had also drawn conclusions: they were now more sober, more serious. The heady days of February were gone, along with many illusions in an “easy” end to the war.

The capitalist Kadet Party, along with the Compromisers, the SRs and Mensheviks, now cooperated in the convening of a “Democratic Conference” to give legitimacy to the Provisional Government and bolster their sagging morale. This artificial body, whose size and distribution of seats were decided from above, bore no relationship to the true balance of class forces in the swirling waters of revolution outside its doors.

The in-built rightwing majority voted, against the Bolsheviks and Left SRs, for a new coalition, but could come to no conclusion about its composition. This indecision, what Trotsky described as a “public confession of its bankruptcy”, corresponded exactly to the paralysis of the ruling class in the streets and barracks.

But like a dying body that clings to life, the representatives of capitalism and their hangers-on continued to go through the motions. They elected a “Council of the Republic” or “Pre-Parliament” to continue its deliberations. The Bolsheviks withdrew from this body, leaving it to its own impotency.

Thus, while society moved inexorably to a decisive conflict over who was to hold power, Prime Minister Kerensky faffed and fiddled and shuffled the seats around in his Cabinet Room. His new government, the fourth coalition since February, was met among the masses by a mixture of indifference and scarcely concealed contempt.

The orders of the Provisional Government and its representatives were increasingly ignored in the factories, the soviets and, crucially, in the military units. Kerensky’s authority was rapidly shrinking to an area conforming approximately to the walls of the Winter Palace.

A serious economic and military crisis now threatened. The capitalists were openly sabotaging industry, closing factories and disrupting transport. Food was becoming scarce in the cities. In frustration, more and more sections of workers took to strike action. The front was in danger of collapsing and the ruling class looked with glee at the prospect of the German army capturing “Red Petrograd”.

In the countryside, land seizures and insurrections were increasing. The radicalization of the peasantry interacted with and fed the leftward shifts within the army, overwhelmingly from a peasant background.

This whole period was characterized by an enormous ferment within the masses. Trotsky describes in his History of the Russian Revolution how meetings were going on everywhere. Debates, arguments, discussions, mass meetings, and in the center of every one of them – a Bolshevik. In the barracks and factories, there were thousands of “Lenins”. Karl Marx long before explained that an “idea” can become a great material force, if it corresponds to a social movement, and such were the ideas and program of Bolshevism in October. As workers visited the front, soldier-delegates visited the factories and both visited the villages, “Bolshevism took possession of the country”.

Because of the dislocation of the economy and transport, the soviets were increasingly obliged to intervene and organize the supply of food, light, fuel and transport for the cities and the front. The question of power was being raised in all its aspects. Who was going to run the economy and therefore the government? The soviets or Kerensky? As Trotsky explained, the soviet government grew up from below. But it would only be confirmed by decisive action against the remaining centers of capitalist authority in the army, the ministries and the Winter Palace.

That decisive action came to revolve around the Second Congress of Soviets, organized for October. The leadership elected by the First Congress, the Central Executive Committee, was dominated by the compromisers. They called the new Congress only under the pressure of the soviets. Fearing the worst, they promptly began an agitation against it.

But with the Bolshevik Party conducting a campaign in favor, there began an unstoppable wave of telegrams and resolutions demanding the CEC convene the Congress, and, moreover, demanding that it take power. The CEC did not succeed in postponing the Congress for more than a few days, to October 25.

The question of the Congress was the dominant political question throughout October. Every vital question: the economy, the war, food supplies, the land question, etc., raised the question of power. The masses now understood this and anxiously demanded the question be resolved by the Soviet Congress.

The decisive initiative was taken by the Petrograd Soviet. On the same day that the fourth coalition had been announced, the soviet had elected a new executive with Trotsky, released from prison “on bail”, as its president. A few days later, it also elected the Military Revolutionary Committee, once again under Trotsky’s leadership.

This committee immediately began to establish permanent lines of communication and command with all the different workplaces and military units in the city. It was consolidating a state – what Engels described as essentially “armed bodies of men” – which corresponded to the power that the soviets already possessed. One after another, the remaining military units transferred their allegiance from the army command, still under the nominal control of the Provisional Government, to the soviets through the MRC.

The Committee also began systematic arming of the workers – Red Guards – with the active support of the soldiers. Mixed detachments of armed workers, soldiers and sailors were now seen to be stationed at key points in the city. The capitalists could only look on, wide-eyed with horror, but unable to stem the tide of history.

From his place of hiding, meanwhile, Lenin was directing insistent demands to the Bolshevik leadership that they should prepare the Party to take power. Conditions were overripe for a soviet government, but Lenin feared that some of the old Bolshevik leaders would hesitate at the critical moment. Throughout October, he denounced with increasing anger those he called the “waverers” in the Party.

Lenin understood that in this situation timing was of critical importance. If Bolsheviks were to fail to give a lead and the soviets let slip the opportunity to take power, then the psychology of the workers may have suffered a decisive reverse, leading to disillusionment and inevitable defeat by a new Kornilov.

As it turned out, Lenin’s fears were not without foundation: at the Central Committee meeting that voted in favor of organizing an insurrection, two long-standing Bolshevik leaders, Zinoviev and Kamenev, voted against. Zinoviev argued that “the forces of the opponents are greater than they appear” – but this was merely covering up a lack of confidence in the working class.

That was bad enough, but Zinoviev and Kamenev then published openly their personal opposition to the line being pursued by the Party in a way which exposed to the enemy the plan for insurrection. Lenin fumed at this treacherous conduct, and although it was not acted upon, he even demanded their expulsion from the Party.

But Zinoviev and Kamenev – supported from the sidelines by Stalin, then a little-known figure – were swimming against what was a strong tide in the Party and even more so outside it. The overwhelming majority of the Party, pushed by the now impatient masses, were on the road to power.

As Trotsky later explained, in Lessons of October, this episode demonstrated the social law that every serious turning point creates a crisis, even in the leadership of a Marxist party. As with the political rearming of the party in April, so also in October, Lenin had to base himself on the class-conscious traditions of the worker-Bolsheviks to ensure a correct line of march.

The episode also demonstrates the vital importance of the subjective factor in a revolution. The October revolution could not take place spontaneously. It needed a leadership with a conscious understanding of the laws of history, a realistic appreciation of the living forces of the revolution, and from these, a perspective and a goal.

Like a human tidal wave, the Russian masses were hurled in the direction of power. But without a guiding party tied by a million threads to every factory, barracks and village, no order could have been created out of the maelstrom. Likewise, without the conscious role of Lenin and Trotsky guiding the Bolshevik Party itself, the October Revolution would not have taken place, or would have ended in disaster.

The final denouement began on October 24. The Provisional Government at last began to stir itself out of its torpor. It ordered the Military Revolutionary Committee be closed down, and the Bolshevik press be banned. The battleship Aurora, whose crew, like those of all big ships and the navy in general was overwhelmingly Bolshevik, was ordered to sail and, for good measure, Kerensky ordered “reliable” units to move to the capital.

In reply, the Military Revolutionary Committee, under Trotsky’s guidance, organized the defense of the Bolshevik press by detachments of soldiers, ordered the Aurora to stay put and defend itself from reaction if necessary, and called on all railway workers and troops to hold up any forces advancing towards Petrograd. Kerensky could do nothing.

The MRC was now functioning day and night. There were 200,000 soldiers, up to 40,000 Red Guards and tens of thousands of sailors under its command. All bridges, rail depots, stations, intersections and key buildings were occupied. The Smolny Institute, home to the Petrograd soviet and the Bolshevik Party, was fortified.

On the morning of October 25, the Smolny announced to the world: “The Provisional Government is overthrown. The state power has passed to the hands of the Military Revolutionary Committee”. The last remaining stronghold of the Provisional Government, the Winter Palace, was taken virtually bloodlessly in the next 24 hours.

Power had been taken in Petrograd with barely a shot being fired because of the audacity and determination of the Bolshevik Party and its leadership. In reality, soviet power was consolidated over a period of two or three weeks, but the insurrection, begun on October 12 with the election of the MRC, was only consummated on October 25.

With an overwhelming majority of Bolsheviks and Left SRs, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets accepted the power presented to it and proceeded to elect the first-ever workers’ government.

In his classic book Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed described how Lenin, coming out of hiding for the first time since July, addressed the Congress and was given a tumultuous welcome. “The trench delegates gaze with all their eyes at this mysterious being whom they had been taught to hate and whom they have learned, without seeing him, to love.” Lenin began his speech simply, saying, “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”

Flame of Revolution

The soviet government kindled the flame of revolution in the minds of workers throughout the world. The October revolution was infused with the finest traditions of the working class: workers’ democracy and workers’ internationalism.

The very first resolution of the Congress was an appeal directed “to all warring peoples and their governments” for a “just, democratic peace.” The Bolsheviks and their supporters understood this as no purely Russian affair, but the beginning of a new world.

Impelled by the horrors of the World War, and with the example of the Russian workers’ government to guide them, the workers of Europe launched themselves in the direction of revolutionary struggle. The German and Austro-Hungarian emperors followed their Russian cousin into oblivion; soviet republics were established in Germany and Hungary; strikes and social upheavals threatened every ruling class. Only the absence of Marxist parties with the same traditions and leadership as the Russian Bolshevik Party prevented the victorious spread of the October revolution in the way Lenin and Trotsky had anticipated.

In their instinct for class self-preservation, the capitalists of Europe, Japan and America forgot the bitter rivalries that had led them to war among themselves a few years earlier. They now turned their attentions to their common enemy. Capitalist states, large and small, sent their armies (21 in all) against the young workers’ republic at one time or another between 1917 and 1921, in an attempt to crush it.

That these attempts failed was due to a combination of factors: the newly-formed revolutionary Red Army, under Trotsky’s leadership, the support and boycotts by workers overseas, and the frequent mutinies of the soldiers and sailors sent against Russia. By 1921, the Revolutionary regime prevailed, although by then isolated and greatly weakened.

The October revolution is rich in lessons for the labor movement today. The exact social conditions of Russia in 1917 are unlikely ever to be repeated, but the methods of Lenin, unbreakable in his determination and his principles, yet flexible in tactics, have a greater relevancy than ever before.

The objective conditions faced by workers today in South Africa, the Philippines and Latin America – and tomorrow in Europe, North America and Japan – are a hundred times better than those of the Bolsheviks. The social weight of the working class and its potential power have grown immeasurably in the last 70 years.

But the key issue that still needs to be addressed, and the one that stands out in any study of October, is the subjective factor: the question of leadership. No matter how great the courage, self-sacrifice and combativeness of the working class, the socialist transformation of society also needs conscious leadership.

Since the Stalinist reaction, the ideas of Lenin have been distorted beyond recognition in Russia, while that same Stalinism is used to discredit what socialism is. But in both East and West, in the storms and convulsions of the years ahead, the genuine traditions of October will be rediscovered by millions of workers … and put to good use.

“We Chose the Bolsheviks…”

In many parts of the world, because of the absence of an alternative leadership, social movements have often taken on the mantle of a religious movement of one kind or another. In this light it is interesting how the American journalist, Albert R. Williams, who was in Russia with John Reed in 1917, described how reaction tried to use the Orthodox Church against the Bolsheviks:

“The Bolsheviks made no direct assault upon religion, but separated Church and State. The flow of government funds into the ecclesiastical coffers was stopped. Marriage was declared a civil institution. The monastic lands were confiscated. Parts of the monasteries were turned into hospitals.

“The Patriarch (Archbishop) thundered his protests against these sacrileges but with little effect. The devotion of the masses to the Holy Church proved to be almost as mythical as their devotion to the Czar. They looked at the Church decree giving them hell if they sided with the Bolsheviks. Then they looked at the Bolshevik decree giving them land and factories.” ‘If we must choose’, some said, ‘we choose the Bolsheviks.’ Others chose the Church. Many merely muttered ‘Neechevo’ (it doesn’t matter much), and walked in the church precession one day and in the Bolshevik parade on the next.”

Bourgeoisie’s Last Resort

“In their efforts to befuddle the brains of the masses the bourgeoisie saw an ally in alcohol”, writes Albert Williams. “The city (Petrograd) was mined with wine cellars more dangerous than powder magazines. This alcohol in the veins of the populace meant chaos in the life of the city. With this aim the cellars were opened and the mob invited in to help themselves. Bottles in hand the drunks would emerge from the cellars to fall sprawling on the snow, or rove through the streets, shooting and looting.

“To these pogroms the Bolsheviks replied with machine guns, pouring lead into the bottles – there was no time to break them all by hand. They destroyed three-million rubles-worth of vintage in the vaults of the Winter Palace, some of it there for a century.”

“Tomorrow You May be Ministers

Fyodor Raskolnikov, one of the Bolshevik leaders among the Kronstadt sailors, describes in his memoirs how he found himself in the Kresty Prison, along with Trotsky and other Bolsheviks, after the July days. Noting the way the “politicals” were treated with more caution, or even courtesy compared to other prisoners, he asked why, only to be told by one of his warders: “Here you are today, in prison, but tomorrow perhaps, you may be Ministers.”