The Russian Revolution was where capitalism broke at its weakest point. This post is largely based on the latest in a series of articles in the socialist, which follow the events of that historic year.
At the end of February 1917 (dates are from the Julian calendar, which was then in use in Russia) Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, having been overthrown peacefully in the storming of the Winter Palace. He was unable to find any regiment of the army willing to defend him. He attempted to pass power to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, but this was refused. A provisional government then took power on the 2nd March, headed by Prince Georgy Lvov – with no mandate, it was very weak and unstable.
Russia was entering a period of dual power, nominally the state had control, but real power was in the hands of soviets – the translation from the Russian is simply “committee” – where ordinary people had taken control of their farms and workplaces. The Bolshevik’s slogan for “Bread, Peace and Land” summed up in simple terms what they were fighting for, and could be easily understood, even by illiterate people – Russia was a very backward country at the time and most of the population was extremely poor, working on the land under a feudal dictatorship under the Tsar.
At the beginning of April, both Lenin and Trotsky were in exile – Lenin was in Switzerland, and Trotsky in a prisoner of war camp in Canada – seized by British naval officers on board a ship bound for Russia, and sent to Halifax. In “My Life” – he says he did not join in a protest about their incarceration, because he didn’t see much point in “complaining to Beelzebub about Satan” – he was accused of being a German agent, backed by the British government and Milyukov, the foreign minister of the Russian provisional government.
The objective conditions for a successful revolution had been met: the Tsar had been overthrown and it was clear to the left wing of the Bolsheviks at least, that power must pass to the soviets in order that the gains that had been made could be consolidated. However, as well as this, workers and peasants must also be willing to fight to bring the revolution to a successful conclusion.
On Lenin’s return to Russia, he wrote the April Theses. This is a draft of speeches he gave at assemblies of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party, which had split previously. The Mensheviks argued that revolution needed to be postponed to a distant future, whereas the left wing of the Bolsheviks argued that people needed to take control over the state for themselves – the names mean “minority” and “majority” in English. Trotsky, before the events of 1917, was in the middle ground – another faction which sought to unite the two conflicting positions – but as this revolutionary year unfolded, he came over to the side of Lenin.
The position of some leading Bolsheviks, such as Kamenev and Stalin, was that of a gradual transition to socialism – they were caught unprepared by the willingness of the mass of people to fight against the Tsar, the demands for basic necessities, the right to govern themselves, and the soldiers returning from the front, who were sick of trench warfare. All of these factors forced the ferocious pace of events of 1917. Kamenev and Stalin were leading the soviet in St Petersburg – they advocated conditional support of the provisional government, and only advised that “a most vigilant watch” be put on the government.
Lenin made the following key demands:
1. To break completely with the capitalist and imperialist war, and for this to be explained to troops at the front.
2. We have got rid of the Tsar, but he has been replaced by another government of the bourgeoisie – we now must place power in the hands of the workers and peasants.
3. No support for the provisional government – we must expose their lies.
4. The Bolshevik party is in a minority at the present time – but we must explain to the people that our the soviets are the only organ capable of bringing true emancipation, and we must tailor our explanations to the needs of the masses’ and their political outlook.
5. For a republic of soviets of workers and peasants throughout the country. To abolish the police, the army and the bureaucracy. For salaries of all officials (to be subject to recall and to be elected) not to be more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
6. Confiscation of landed estates and the nationalisation of all land – to be handed over to the peasants.
7. For workers’ control of the banks, which would be nationalised and amalgamated into one central bank.
8. Production should be brought under control of the soviets.
9. For an immediate Bolshevik Party Congress. To change the name of the party to the All Russian Communist Party, to alter the party’s positions on the war, the state and its minimum programme.
10. For the establishment of a new socialist International.
Lenin made these points repeatedly. Defeated initially by the right-wing Petrograd Bolsheviks, he took his campaign to the Mensheviks and to the party membership at large and won widespread support for his ideas. At the Bolshevik Party conference on April 24th, Lenin’s motion to transfer all power to the soviets was carried by 149 to 3 votes – and the party had now rapidly grown, enthused by his ideas – it now numbered 79,000, with 15,000 members in Petrograd (St Petersburg) alone.
An important breaking point in the provisional administration was the First World War – should it support or condemn the imperalist conflict? Milyukov said they would “pursue the war to its glorious conclusion” – this resulted in huge May Day demonstrations, which forced his resignation in April 21st. Six socialist members of the Petrograd soviet then joined the provisional government. Milyukov resigned and Trotsky was then released from incarceration.
If it were not for the intervention of Lenin at this key point, and more importantly the support of the masses – whose ideas echoed with his, the revolution may well have been just another wasted opportunity as has happened in many countries since – the Arab Spring, Allende’s Chile, France 1968 to name but a few.
In May the Bolsheviks adopted Lenin’s programme, with the slogan “All power to the soviets”.
This shows the importance, even if all the other factors for revolution are in place, of having the correct programme and being able to win people to your side in order to carry through a successful socialist revolution. The Russian Revolution was unique in being able to accomplish this, but it was isolated. With the subsequent civil war, the death of Lenin and the exile of Trotsky, the USSR tragically became corrupted by Stalinism.
The Socialist Party in the UK is still fighting today, as part of the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is fighting in 50 countries worldwide, to establish true socialism. Capitalism is still failing the vast majority of people. If you are not a member of the socialist party, then join us!