The Great October Socialist Revolution… The 1917 October Revolution was named as such for years in the Soviet Union and in the written documents of the international communist movement. In Russian it was very poetic, Velikaya Oktyabrskaya Sotsyalisticheskaya Revolyutsiya. In many ways, it was a poetic revolution.
It was great, of course, very great. The sincere historians, even if they are not Marxists, placed it next to the French Revolution. Both opened a new era in the history of humanity, both were universal, both constituted a great leap forward, both left traces to the world that are still alive today that can not be wiped away. And strangely enough, both were representing two opposed classes, two social forces whose interests cannot be reconciled again.
One of those two still dominates the world today. A damned destructive force remained from French bourgeoisie, which made a spectacular rise in 1789, which has since been rotting and trying to destroy all the values and gains of humanity. The working-class, the only power capable of toppling down this world-dominating power, has stumbled and could not proceed with the course of the magnificent social order that they themselves launched in Russia, in 1917. The working-class lost its most valuable asset, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and is now seeking for ways to make a move once again.
We are seeking ways for it.
Just as Lenin, the 20th century’s greatest revolutionary, has sought for.
This search, during the ten months from February of 1917, to October according to the Julian calendar valid in Russia in that period or to almost November according to current Gregorian calendar, namely to November 7 when the first socialist revolution that took place in the world on, was a unique experiment for the liberation of the working-class.
Who could know that the process that had begun with the collapse of the Tsar in Russia in February 1917 with a great speed and without any though resistance would end with the establishment of the first workers’ state under the leadership of the Bolsheviks?
The records show that the Bolshevik Party, the revolutionary wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, had less than 20 thousand members by the end of 1916. When we take into account that the population of the empire was 130 million, and the population of the area that is within the borders of the Russian Federation today was about 90 million, we can deduce that the Bolshevik Party was such a “big” party.
We should not forget to add that the quantitative magnitude does not mean everything and the Bolsheviks almost always had to do underground work.
But whatever it is, nobody could even imagine at the beginning of 1917, that the Bolsheviks would handle the fate of this tough country before that year comes to an end.
The revolutionary organisations did not have a determining role in the revolutionary rise that shook the Tsarist social order in February 1917. Yes, they mauled the Tsarist regime with a patient and stubborn work, reinforced the people’s determination to struggle; but in February 1917 which began with the resistances of workers’, the actions of the soldiers’ families and student boycotts, what brought the discontent up to a revolutionary peak of was the crackling of the Tsarist regime from inside.
At the end of February with the Old Russian calendar, or on March 11 with the new calendar, the Volinsky Imperial Guard Regiment, which was believed to be the most loyal one to the Tsar among the security forces that had fired and killed hundreds of protestors until then, refused to open fire on the people and revolted thereafter. There is no record whether the soldiers who started the uprising were led by a revolutionary organisation. Only eight conscientious soldiers are mentioned in some sources. Afterwards, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…
In one day, the number of soldiers, who joined the ranks of the revolution, the people, with their weapons, reached around 60 thousand. As one can see, some of the soldiers and officers in charge of protecting the Tsar and his throne formed the army of the people in Petrograd.
The February Revolution was recorded in history as a revolution without a vanguard.
None of the revolutionary organisations that for decades had struggled against the Tsar and the aristocracy, became prominent during the February events. Moreover, none of them were able to foresee that Tsar would be overthrown that easily, not were they ready for this psychologically or politically. Most of the leading cadres of the revolutionary organisations were either in prison or in exile.
What overthrew the Tsar was the anger that accumulated in the people for years and his presumption that he could intimidate the people with sword and bullet forever. At one point the people said, “we had better die.”
Why? What made the people in Russia stand up?
To answer this question, it is necessary to briefly return to the beginning of the First World War. We know, all the great powers went to the imperialist war that started on 1914, by fooling their own poor people. The Germans were fighting to defend their homeland against Russian reactionaries and to save the oppressed people in the Russian Empire; The French and British were fighting to be protected from the German expansionism and to liberate the oppressed nations in the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire; the Russian were fighting to gain new lands and conquering Istanbul!
They rushed to the front with military anthems joyfully. Most of them were the children of poor families. Then they began to realise that war was death, hunger and epidemic illnesses. In 1916, disobedience, hatred against officers, and even murders of them became common in all armies, but especially in German and Russian armies who were fighting against each other.
Behind the front, the working class was working under slavery conditions to supply the army with food, armoury and clothing. After a certain point the hinterland started to shake, too. Mostly in Russia…
The Bolsheviks were by then still a small-scale organisation, but they began with the “defeatist” propaganda within the military rather early. At the very beginning of the war and especially in 1915, the strategy to “transform the imperialist war into a civil war” was being mentioned by Lenin on all occasions. The Bolsheviks in 1916 at and behind the front have started reaping the first fruits of this strategy. They were getting organised in the army step by step. Within the working class as well, Bolshevik cells were operating in many critical factories.
Nevertheless, these did not bring the Bolsheviks in the forefront in February 1917. The existing social order was rotten, the plans that were made in the beginning of the war proved to be wrong, and the state became disreputable. Even among the high-ranked officers, demands for “democracy” and “freedom” had an influence.
The tsar fell!
The huge country, besides being in the middle of the war, rolled into political vacuum. In a couple of days, the “forces of order” within the Duma, which has reached a certain authority in the Tsarist regime and in which the bourgeois democrats became influential despite some revolutionary elements within, took action and by declaring the launch of the Provisional Government they tried to limit the Russian Revolution. They had the ability to “manage”, knew the state structure well, they had intimate relations with many bureaucrats from the Tsarist regime.
And they were afraid. Because during the collapse of the Tsarist regime, poor peasants and millions of workers that recruited to arms during the war, became liberated; and had a sense of organised struggle. What represented these masses were the Soviets (Councils) that showed up firstly in 1905, whose existence ended when the revolution was withdrawn, but once again hit the stage with the revolution in 1917. Workers, peasants and soldiers had formed their councils in many settlements. The most powerful and important one among them was the Petrograd Soviet.
In March 1917, the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government were two different power centres which had to watch for each other, and recognize each other. In terms of social ties and the presence in the streets, the Soviets were by far superior, while the Provisional Government was settled in state power. Its strength was lying in the weakness and the lack of taking initiative of the Soviets, and their inability to get rid of the tendency to deliver the power to the Provisional Government.
1917 was an interesting year. After the fall of the tsar, an amnesty was issued so that political prisoners became free. Political and trade-union organisations were freed from underground work. Revolutionary leaders returned from exile. More important was the arming of the working class, especially in Petrograd. The attempts by the Provisional Government to disarm civilians several times in order to retain the authority were gone in vain.
The revolutionaries and working people, who had been subjected to heavy oppression for many years, were enjoying freedom. However, the route of the country was still unclear. The February Revolution was targeting the Tsar; but there were a series of reasons behind it. Above all, the working people had done with the war, and they wanted “peace”. The poor peasants were in concern of “land”, the workers in the city were asking for “bread”. In addition, the oppressed nations in the Russian Empire had demands for equality and freedom.
The February Revolution toppled the Tsar; but the Provisional Government that came into power took a political stance that did not meet the demands and expectations of the millions. There was nothing surprising about that, the Provisional Government was composed of the bourgeois forces and the collaborative “left” movements that tailed after the former.
They decided to carry on with the war. The reason was really brilliant; previously they were fighting in the name of the Tsar previously, and now in the name of the Revolution! Once again, there was no bread, the workers were working for the greedy capitalists and the army, and no steps were taken at all for the agrarian and national question.
Some of the Bolsheviks were indecisive. In the end, a revolution took place, freedoms were provided and an unimaginable political atmosphere was created. Lenin, on the other hand, wasted no time to break away from the illusion of the Provisional Government. From abroad, he wrote the following lines just in the week after Revolution:
“The new government cannot give the peoples of Russia (and the nations tied to us by the war) either peace, bread, or full freedom. The working class must therefore continue its fight for socialism and peace, utilising for this purpose the new situation and explaining it as widely as possible among the masses.”
After all when he returned in April, he would put this approach in front of the party and the masses of workers as a coherent strategy and, unlike other political parties and movements that were drifting desperately in the Russian Revolution, this would make the Bolsheviks the only opposition party that knew what they were doing.
It was such an opponent party that was taking a stand against one of the power centres that the Revolution created, the Provisional Government, and taking the other as the only legitimate power of the Revolution. The Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Soviets were the connecting point of the Bolsheviks with the Revolution. All other political movements were weakening in the Soviets either because they were taking part in the Provisional Government or surrendering to it. Because, the more bourgeois the Provisional Government, the more proletarian the Soviets were!
The Bolsheviks began to grow rapidly with this policy within the Soviets, where they were in the minority, and, moreover, they started to be backed by the workers of the critical factories in Petrograd. They had a solid organisational heritage, and while other movements were wasting time tattling and playing within the internal balance of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks were spreading rapidly among both workers and soldiers.
Actually, the other political forces abandoned the struggle when the Tsar has fallen. The illusion “the Revolution took place, now we must maintain the social order” stole the whole revolutionary energy of the groups, from anarchists to Mensheviks, that were outnumbering the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, though, were processing the thesis that the Russian Revolution with its current form would become meaningless, they were becoming the only hope of millions of poor in discontent.
The Provisional Government had one remaining weapon: To accuse the Bolsheviks with defeatism, with the betrayal to the Revolution!
They also had a chance to use this weapon. During a very special period called the July Days in the Russian Revolution, they caught an opportunity to bring the working class into line, as well as declaring the Bolsheviks unlawful. The workers’ masses that were impressed from the famous slogan of the Bolsheviks “All power to the Soviets!” and the councils of the Bolsheviks in the factories decided to organise a protest, yet with an uncertain strategy. It was possible that this protest could turn into an uprising; different answers were given to the question that whether the protest will be armed or peaceful. Within the military organisation of the Bolsheviks, there existed some who defended that the “power can be claimed”, the Central Committee of the Party was in hesitation. The excitement and desire of the masses of workers, made the Bolsheviks decide to lead the protests and try to keep it under control till the last moment.
However, everyone had their own view about the purpose and limits of the protest. On July 17, the Military Committee began to implement the preparations it had already made, to hold some critical points when the masses of workers began marching and to put their troops in action. However, the party’s undecisiveness, the lack of preparations and the presence of some troops still loyal to the Provisional Government brought an end to the uprising.
In fact, the Provisional Government entrapped the Bolsheviks. Thousands of workers that joined the protest were walking peacefully. Yes, the slogans were indeed radical; the banners demanding to assign the power to the Soviets were drawing the attention. The “military” preparations of the Military Committee were also clearly obvious, but none of these consitututed a reason that would be enough to open fire on the protesters.
As a result, hundreds of people died, an arrest warrant was issued for Lenin, some CC members got arrested, the head office of the Bolshevik Party was attacked and destroyed, Pravda was banned, speculations claiming Lenin to be a German spy was spread all over the newspapers.
On top of these, the rise of the Bolsheviks was blocked, the party was almost recognized as a criminal case. Lenin, now a wanted fugitive, endeavoured for a regular withdrawal to prevent the political and organisational disintegration of the party. As a matter of fact, most of the cells in the factory and in the military units recovered in a short time.
One could say that this organised and dirty attack was avoided with little damage. The accusation against Lenin of being a German spy because he stood against his government during the war had a high degree of persuasiveness on the people. Not the criminal but the political side of the accusations of being a German spy and of betrayal to the revolution was extremely serious and this political pressure was the reason why many Bolshevik party leaders considered it more appropriate for Lenin to surrender rather than escape.
There were two interrelated reasons why the Bolsheviks were able to weaken this pressure. The Bolshevik propaganda was not responsible for the inconsistent, incompetent and unconvincing image of the Provisional Government. The hound against Lenin and his party did not improve the image of the Provisional Government among workers and soldiers. On the contrary, after July, conditions in Petrograd and other cities aggravated. So, the politicised working masses became indifferent to the accusation of spying, and the accusation itself began to lose its persuasiveness. In connection with this, the Bolshevik organisation, well-rooted and seemingly very powerful in comparison to others, proved that it had the means to achieve an impressive political rising after a short withdrawal.
It was very apparent that the number of the supporters of the Bolsheviks was continuing to increase!
Then came the Kornilov revolt, which caused the blockade around the Bolsheviks to break completely. In stopping the counterrevolutionary General Lavr Kornilov’s operation to overthrow the Provisional Government, the reason why the Kerensky government needed the Bolsheviks was clear. If the working class and the revolutionary soldiers which became the armed wing of the class that was to defend Petrograd, there was no “authority” other than the Bolsheviks to move this great social force with discipline. Historians say that Kerensky “shot himself in the foot by allowing the Bolsheviks to arm themselves” but Kerensky was already a finished politician with no future. Despite all his abilities…
With the great contribution of the Bolsheviks, the counterrevolutionary uprising was suppressed, as the prestige of Bolshevism increased tremendously, no one could attempt to disarm this power that saved the revolution. The arrested Bolshevik leaders were released, the party regained its reputation.
Shortly thereafter, Lenin began to defend the strategy of “uprising as soon as possible” that is to say, to overthrow the Provisional Government. The government’s social support was gradually weakened, and the Kornilov affair showed that the army was not loyal to Kerensky. In addition, time was running against the Bolsheviks.
It was possible for the Provisional Government to sign a separate peace settlement with Germany. Moreover, at the Soviet Congress to be held in the last week of October with the Russian calendar, the Bolsheviks would be in minority despite their rapid strengthening.
Lenin insisted that the uprising must take place before the Soviet Congress. The Military Revolutionary Committee was already continuing its preparations without interruption. The necessary lessons were observed from the July Days and it became more or less clear what moves would be necessary to take power in Petrograd.
The date of the uprising leaked outside. Kamenev and Zinoviev, who did not like this job much, had responsibility, but it was not possible to say that the Bolsheviks hid the preparations anyway. More interestingly, everybody knew that the Bolsheviks will attempt an uprising in October; however they did not give it much chance of success. But Kerensky and others’ hands were tied. They had no power to stop the Bolsheviks. When they attempted this, the uprising had already begun and the Provisional Government fell without much resistance.
As of November 7, the working class in Russia was in power.
Let us now return to the question that historians have sought for an answer for an entire century. How was that possible? How did the Bolshevik Party, a small organisation when entering 1917, brought the working class to power in October 1917?
When we try to condense a very comprehensive answer, we see that two cases stand out. First, there was no bourgeois actor in Russia who was able to conclude the Revolution, which had risen with an explosion but without a vanguard in February 1917. The Cadets (Constitutionalist Democrats) did not have the organisation and social support to fill this gap. Having a personal weight that surpassed his own political group, Kerensky’s political talents were far superior to his social support. The Mensheviks, who became part of the bourgeois camp as of the revolution, were impotent, while the Socialist Revolutionary (SRs) had lost their integrity. When all these forces came together, they could not produce a coherent and effective program.
If the Bolsheviks had not stepped in, an open counter-revolution or the restoration of a bourgeois bloc, which had established an alliance with counter-revolutionary forces in the name of the “Revolution” (we can also say in the name of social order), was awaiting Russia. Those who say that if the “coup” of the Bolsheviks had not taken place, Russia would have had a very developed democracy and even the way for a pluralistic and libertarian socialism would be opened up, are entirely making up.
They say; “The Bolsheviks took power because others were impotent, incoherent, incompetent, unskilful, and short-sighted.” “Russia has shifted into a totalitarian regime in the hands of the Bolsheviks because the Bolsheviks blocked the Russian democracy by staging a coup.” If the first proposition to make light of the Bolsheviks is true, the second is a lie. If the latter is true, why did all political movements, except the Bolsheviks, turn into caricature in 1917?
From another fictive story we reach the second phenomenon that comes to the fore with the question above. The claim is that both after the Kornilov uprising was suppressed and after the power was taken in November 7, Lenin was in search of a broad-based power that involved all the left forces, but it did not happen!
Yes, it did not, because Lenin, who had a say in the strategic expansion of the Bolshevik Party, had no such idea. Already in February 1917, Lenin ruled out the parties in question and declared all formations that favoured the Provisional Government as enemies of the working class. This was in accordance with the line Lenin has started to develop since 1914, it was not a new thing.
From time to time Lenin approached the others with tactical expansions, where he was not a hypocrite, he explicitly stated that a permanent solution or unity was possible with “absolute break” with the bourgeois. Yet it was clear that neither the Mensheviks nor the SRs had any intention of doing so. After the seizure of power on November 7, the Bolsheviks’ alliance with the left wing of the SRs was also a product of necessities and was not permanent. With the left wing of the SRs, it would be impossible to go on towards socialism.
Together with the political and social weaknesses of the bourgeoisie, it was precisely this strategy that made it possible for the Bolshevik Party to crown the revolution with the working-class power in October 1917. Lenin made no compromises on the strategic path he entered when the revolution began:
When the tsar fell, the bourgeois revolution was essentially complete, the revolution should now aim socialism, the workers’ power;
In Russia, the hegemony of the working class in the army depended on the demand for “immediate peace”. With this move, the working class, aiming to overthrow the capitalists, would ensure the liberation of war-tired soldiers;
The Bolshevik Party would not enter any alliance where it would not stand at its core;
The power of the working class did not have to rely on the majority of the population; the majority of the active part of the population was sufficient;
The source of both political and social legitimacy of the goal of socialist power was the Workers’, Peasants’, Soldiers’ Soviets.
Lenin is the greatest revolutionary in history. The Bolshevik Party, led by him, led the greatest revolution in history:
The Great October Socialist Revolution…