Russia 1917: When workers took power

The Russian revolution has been distorted by an army of historians and commentators. For socialists, however, it remains one of the greatest events in human history, when working-class people took power into their own hands and abolished capitalism and landlordism.

The Russian revolution has been distorted by an army of historians and commentators. For socialists, however, it remains one of the greatest events in human history, when working-class people took power into their own hands and abolished capitalism and landlordism.

In 1917, against the backdrop of the First World War, which saw 2.5 million Russian soldiers killed and massive food shortages develop, the regime headed by Tsar Nicholas II faced mass strikes and soldiers’ mutinies. This upheaval was sparked by the action of women textile workers in Petrograd in February of that year, whose strike for bread snowballed into a movement which demanded the end of tsarism. Within a matter of days, Nicholas was forced to abdicate.

Soviets formed

The Russian workers – having learned from the experience of the 1905 revolution, which had been brutally repressed – re-established workers’ councils known as soviets. The capitalist parties formed an unelected Provisional Government in order to head off the revolution. Lenin described this situation as “dual power”, as both the soviets and Provisional Government had control over various parts of society. At the time, many socialists, including some in Lenin’s Bolsheviks, argued that it was necessary to support the Provisional Government rather than for the workers to take power.  In his ‘April Theses,’ Lenin argued that to end the war, to provide food for workers and give land to the peasants, it necessary to fight for “All power to the soviets.”

By May, there were 300 soviets in Russia and by October there was 1,200. These were forums where delegations elected by workers in factories or districts would come together to discuss how to defend and take the revolution forward. The Petrograd soviet, for example, had 1,200 delegates which met fortnightly and elected a 110 person executive. In one form or another, this has been seen in other revolutionary movements. In Chile in 1972, they were called cordones. In the Portuguese revolution of 1974, soldiers’ councils played a key role. Similar bodies were thrown up during the Arab Spring. In 1917, most workers and women – not just in Russia, but in the so-called ‘democratic countries’ – were denied the right to vote, yet in Russia, workers had engaged in an incredible level of self-organisation and began to pose the question of taking power.

July Days & Kornilov Coup

By July, the Provisional Government had failed to end the war or meet any of the people’s key demands and many workers and soldiers in Petrograd felt strong enough to take power themselves. The view of the Bolsheviks was that this was premature, there was not enough support in the rest of the country or among the mass of soldiers. The Bolsheviks, therefore, intervened to counsel caution on the part of the Petrograd workers. The Bolshevik Party was successful in stopping a premature uprising but was subjected to fierce repression after July: its papers banned, its leaders jailed or in hiding, all subjected to slander. But while the Bolsheviks were suffering repression, the revolutionary process continued.

The ruling class believed they had to repress this movement and turned to an old tsarist general, Kornilov, to lead a military coup against the Provisional Government, then headed by Kerensky, a member of the Mensheviks and considered a ‘moderate socialist’. The Bolsheviks warned of this danger and Bolshevik workers mobilised to defend the revolution, working in a united front with the reformist Mensheviks. Kornilov’s troops refused to take action against Petrograd when delegates of the soviets appealed to them. The Bolsheviks’ crucial role in defending the city led to increased support. One soldier in the Moscow garrison said: “After the attempt of Kornilov, all the troops acquired a Bolshevik colour… All were struck by the way in which the statement (of the Bolsheviks) came true… that General Kornilov would soon be at the gates of Petrograd.”

October – the seizure of power

The Bolsheviks grew massively in August and September. A tiny minority in February, the majority of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets were won over to the Bolsheviks in this period. In Petrograd, the soviet had elected a new executive with Leon Trotsky as its president. A few days later, it also elected the Military Revolutionary Committee.

The Provisional Government responded in October by demanding the Military Revolutionary Committee be closed down, and the Bolshevik press be suppressed. The battleship Aurora, whose crew – like the navy in general – was overwhelmingly Bolshevik, was ordered to sail from Petrograd and, for good measure, Kerensky ordered “reliable” units to move to the capital. In reply, the Military Revolutionary Committee organised the defence of the Bolshevik press by detachments of soldiers, ordered the Aurora to stay put and defend itself if necessary, and called on all railway workers and troops to hold up any forces advancing towards Petrograd.

The Provisional Government could do nothing. This was then followed by the famous taking of the Winter Palace and power was firmly in the hand of the soviets. This was done with barely a shot being fired and was endorsed by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which accepted the power presented to it and proceeded to elect the first ever workers’ government.

A revolutionary government

That government formed by the soviets immediately declared peace, formalised workers’ control of industry and decreed that peasants should take over the landed estates. Education was massively expanded and a huge programme launched against illiteracy in a country where 80% of the population could not read.

Divorce was made legal upon request and homosexuality was decriminalised. Russian became the first country to legalise abortion. Communal canteens and nurseries were created almost overnight in order to free women from what the Bolsheviks called “domestic slavery.” On the second anniversary of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were able to boast that they had done more in their time in power than the so-called “enlightened bourgeois democracies” had done in 130 years. One hundred years later, as people in Northern Ireland well know, many of these rights have yet be won, even in the developed world.

The Bolsheviks separated church and state and stood firmly against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. They gave the oppressed nations imprisoned within the Russian empire the right to self-determination, including to separate, while at the same time arguing for the maximum unity of working class people.

Revolutionary party key

The Russian revolution was not the only time workers fought to take power. The 20th century is littered with examples but the 1917 was the only time where they were successful. A key reason was the presence of a politically strong, revolutionary party with roots in the working class. Lenin’s mantra was “to patiently explain” to workers the need for revolution. Lenin’s pamphlet ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It’, published on the eve of the revolution, put forward the need to take bold, anti-capitalist measures and, crucially, that the working class was the only force capable of implementing this programme.

As Trotsky explained, there were thousands of Lenins arguing for this programme in the factories and, in the course of the revolution, the Bolsheviks grew quickly. They numbered 8,000 members in February 1917 but, by October, had developed into a force of 240,000. The Bolsheviks were a crucial factor in the revolution. As Trotsky put it, “without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

International impact

The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could never be achieved in one country, particularly one as economically poor and backward as Russia. In the wake of the revolution, there were mass upheavals in Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1919 and in many other countries. In Britain and Ireland, there was huge support for the Bolsheviks, with mass demonstrations, action to stop military goods being sent to attack the new government and workers forming their own soviets. What was missing was a leadership like the Bolsheviks that could fight for power.

Instead, the young workers’ state was left isolated and facing civil war, as the dispossessed capitalists and landlords collaborated with 21 armies of imperialism to try and crush the revolution. They failed to do so because of the determination of the Russian workers and the huge international solidarity with the fledgling Soviet Union. But, in this context, counter-revolution did take hold in the form of Stalinism, where a privileged bureaucracy began to strangle the workers’ democracy, leading to the development of a grotesque, totalitarian regime resting on top of the key gain of the October revolution – the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a planned economy.

Today, we live in a turbulent world where a new generation are being won to socialist ideas. The lessons of the Russian revolution retain huge relevance. Most important among those is that the working class has enormous capacity to transform the world and create a society which abolishes poverty, exploitation and oppression – but only if it has an organisation that is prepared to build fight for it.

By Kevin Henry

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