1918: The Proletariat's Democratic Revolution in Finland

Red Guard
Red Guard

The following is an excerpt from 'The Truce and the Great Retrenchment' - Chapter 6 of Year One of the Russian Revolution by Victor Serge.

Submitted by Mike Harman on July 22, 2007

Sacrificed by the Bolsheviks at the negotiating table as they agreed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with international capital ("The revolution will not be lost simply because we will be giving the Germans Finland, Latvia and Estonia" - Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, pp. 522, 523.), the Finnish workers' revolt was defeated by the limits of reformist social democracy and drowned in blood by bourgeois repression in the aftermath of the civil war. According to Serge; " It seems to be no exaggeration to declare that the total number of Finnish workers struck down by the White terror (whether killed or given long prison sentences) was more than 100,000: about a quarter of the entire proletariat."


The treaty of Brest-Litovsk sealed the sacrifice of the Finnish proletariat, in whom the Russian revolutionaries had rightly placed their greatest hopes.[1] If Russia was, as Lenin emphasized on many occasions, one of the most backward countries in Europe, Finland was one of the most advanced nations in the world. Everything in its situation seemed to promise an easy victory for Socialism: its customs, its political culture, so similar to that of the most progressive democracies of the West, the victories of its labour movement, and even its industrial structure.

The people of Finland had known neither serfdom nor despotism. A part of Sweden since the twelfth century, a country of small owners who had never been conquered by feudalism, Finland passed to Russia in 1809 through the alliance between Napoleon and Alexander I. Constituted as a Grand Duchy, it enjoyed a large degree of autonomy within the Empire which was all the more effective because the Finns defended it cannily against their Grand Dukes - the Tsars of Russia. Finland kept its own Diet, its currency, its postal system, its schools, its militias and its internal administration. It evolved in Western fashion, like the Scandinavian countries. Nicholas II's brutal attempts at Russification only succeeded in alienating the whole of Finnish society. Two years after the 1905 revolution, as a result of which the Tsar was forced to give Finland a constitution, the Finns introduced universal suffrage. At the first elections in 1907, the Social-Democrats won eighty seats out of 200 in the Sejm. The elections of 1916 gave them an absolute majority: 103 out of 200. They voted in the eight-hour day and an intelligent programme of social legislation.

Then, Socialist parliamentarianism found itself in peril of its life. Was it, after all, possible to travel peaceably towards Social-ism, ballot-form in hand? The Finnish bourgeoisie made an alliance with Kerensky against the `Red Diet' with its Social-Democrat majority: the Provisional Government in Petrograd ordered its dissolution, thus continuing, when it came to the choice, the political line of Tsardom. Russian sentinels stood on guard outside the locked doors of the Parliament in Helsinki. At the subsequent elections, the Social-Democrats gained votes (from 375,000 in the previous year to 444,000) but lost seats (from 103 down to ninety-two). This result was due to the cynical but skilful fraud practised by the bourgeois parties.

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 twenty years in the mould of German Social-Democracy, had hoped to avoid. Ever since 1914 the bourgeoisie of Finland had been preparing to use the imperialist war to gain its national independence by force of arms. The 27th Jagers Battalion of the German army was made up of 3,000 young Finns from the wealthy and the well-to-do classes, who were in service against Russia, the ancestral enemy. Clandestine military schools existed in various parts of the country. After the fall of the Tsar, a corps of volunteer riflemen was organized in the north to maintain law and order. This was General Gerich's Schutzkorps, the first-ever White Guard unit, which was formed quite openly. Its headquarters was at Vaasa on the Gulf of Bothnia. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie insistently demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops, who had been sent to Finland at the beginning of the war to guard the country against a German invasion.

The October Revolution was echoed in Finland by the great general strike of mid-November (14 November, Old Style; 27, New Style). This was provoked by a serious famine, which was confined to the poor classes, and by the reactionary politics of the Senate, who wanted to install a dictatorial Directorate headed by the reactionary Svinhufvud. Work stopped everywhere. The rail-ways were at a standstill. The workers' Red Guards, with support here and there from Russian soldiers, occupied the public buildings. There were bloody clashes everywhere between Reds and Whites. The deputies sat and talked. Terrified, the bourgeoisie agreed to the eight-hour day and the new social legislation, as well as to the democratization of executive authority, which passed from the Senate to the Sejm (or Diet). And the general strike, the workers' own victory, was consummated in the introduction of a bourgeois Cabinet, presided over by the same reactionary Svinhufvud! It was a revolution aborted. In the opinion of the Finnish revolutionaries, the seizure of power could have been managed at this moment, and would even have proved very easy - the support of the Bolsheviks being decisive. But, as Comrade O. W. Kuusinen,[2] formerly one of the principal leaders of Finnish Social-Democracy, was to write later: `Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to manoeuvre round this turning-point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution. . . . We did not believe in the revolution; we reposed no hope in it; we had no wish for it.' With leaders animated by a spirit like this, the cause of the Finnish proletariat was in terrible. peril.

If the general strike had shown the workers their strength, to the bourgeoisie it had revealed their danger. The bourgeois classes of Finland realized that, left to their own resources, they were doomed. Svinhufvud asked Sweden to intervene. The Whites were busily arming in the north, where they had set up depots for their food supplies. The government was astute enough to prolong the famine in the working-class centres, making sure that food reserves were not made available for the workers. The proclamation of Finland's independence changed nothing. The proletariat became increasingly apprehensive of the possibility of a Swedish or German intervention. On top of it all, the Sejm now, by ninety-seven votes against eighty-seven, passed a resolution making clear reference to the need for a bourgeois dictatorship. Once again the problem of power faced the workers, in even starker terms than during the general strike of November. This time it was obvious to the Social-Democrats that all chances of settling matters by parliamentary means had vanished. It was necessary to fight.

On the night of 14 January (27, New Style), the Red Flag was hoisted over the Workers' House at Helsinki. The city was rapidly captured, and the Senate and government fled to Vaasa. In a few days, almost without resistance, the Reds took over the largest towns, Abo, Viipuri and Tammerfors, and the whole of southern Finland. So peaceful a victory might have been disquieting. The Social-Democratic leaders (Manner, Sirola, Kuusinen, etc.) formed a workers' government, the Council of People's Delegates, under the control of a central Workers' Council of thirty-five delegates (ten from the unions, ten from the Social-Democratic party and five from the workers' organizations of Helsinki). Their notion of activity was `to march day by day towards the Socialist revolution', as the People's Delegates put it. They introduced workers' control over production, which was relatively simple given the marked concentration of key industries: wood, paper and textiles. They were successful too in stopping sabotage on the part of the banks. Public life and production very soon resumed a practically normal existence.

Was the dictatorship of the proletariat possible? Was it necessary? The leadership of the movement did not think so, although industry employed about half a million persons out of a total population of three million. The proletariat and the agricultural day-labourers formed a mass of about half a million altogether. The small and middle peasants, who were in a majority in the countryside, could have been won to the revolution or neutralized by it. Unfortunately, however, `until they were defeated, most of the leaders of the revolution had no clear idea of the aims of the. revolution' (according to Kuusinen). Their aim was to establish, without the expropriation of the rich or the dictatorship of labour, a parliamentary democracy in which the proletariat would have been the leading class.

The principal measures passed by the Council of People's Delegates were as follows: the eight-hour day; compulsory payment of wages for the days of the revolutionary strike; the emancipation of domestic servants and farmhands (who were hired by the year by the farmers and subject to very harsh regulations); the abolition of the old system of land distribution, which was based on tribute and compulsory labour as rent; the abolition of rent for small tenants; judicial reform; the abolition of the death penalty (which had very rarely been exercised previously); tax exemption for the poor (the minimum taxable income being set at 2,400 marks in the towns and 1,400 marks in the country, instead of 800 and 400 marks, and a further tax being imposed on incomes over 20,000 marks); a tax on dwellings of more than one room; the liberation of the press from its ancient restrictions; workers' control in the factories.

A little while later, during the civil war, other measures were introduced: requisitioning of grain and potatoes; the closing down of the bourgeois press; the prohibition of the flight of capital abroad; the general obligation to labour for all able-bodied adults between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five years. It was a workers' revolution conducted in the name of an ideal democracy, characterized in the form of a draft constitution at the end of February 1918 which was to be put to a referendum in the spring. This attractive project is worth summarizing.

The supreme authority of the `People's Republic of Finland' was to be an assembly of representatives of the people elected every three years by direct and secret balloting under universal suffrage with proportional representation; women were to have the vote and the electoral age was twenty years. In addition to the usual liberties, the constitution would have guaranteed the in-violability of the person, the right to strike, the right of strikers to guard factories against the employment of blacklegs, and the neutrality of the armed forces in labour disputes. Any modification in the constitution had to be subjected to a referendum. Minorities in the Assembly, if they amounted to one third of the votes, had the right to veto all measures, except tax laws, until the next session. Any bill introducing indirect taxes or customs dues (which chiefly affect the poor classes) had to have a two-thirds majority. The import of primary commodities was to be.exempt from taxation. In the event of war the government was empowered to take special measures against `the enemies of the constitution'. The right to rise in insurrection was accorded to the people in the event of an attack on the constitution by their representatives. The people even had to have the right of initiating legislation: any proposed law presented by 10,000 citizens had to be discussed forthwith. Functionaries and magistrates were to be elected for a term of five years, and could be re-elected. At any time a deputy could be compelled to stand for re-election on the demand of one fifth of his electors. The Council of People's Delegates, who would exercise executive power, were to be voted in for three years by the Assembly; the Assembly would also appoint the Council's president and vice-president who could not be re-elected for more than one more consecutive term and would enjoy no special powers. The government would be under the supervision of a `Control Commission on the Administration and Application of the Laws'. The veto of two members of this Commission was the minimum required to freeze any act of new legislation. The other clauses dealt with the election of judges, who were to be subject to control from the government, autonomy of local institutions and the provision of workers' representatives in all administrations.

In contrast with the practice of the bourgeois democracies, this constitution would have unified, in the Assembly of popular representatives, all legislative, executive and (to a certain degree) judiciary powers. The government was reduced virtually to the exercise of executive functions. On this project, one Finnish revolutionary has remarked:

In theory, the highest conceivable degree in the development of bourgeois democracy was attained - a degree which is in practice unrealizable under the capitalist system. Bourgeois democracy has to either go on and be transformed into the dictatorship of the proletariat, if the proletariat is the winner, or become the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie if the proletariat is defeated.[3]

It was a truly noble scheme, if somewhat Utopian. `The weakness of the bourgeoisie,' Kuusinen has said, `led us into being captivated by the spell of democracy, and we decided to advance towards Socialism through parliamentary action and the democratization of the representative system.' Such was the influence of reformist illusions upon the Finnish Socialists. Such was their fatal ignorance of the laws of the class struggle.


The bourgeoisie displayed a much greater realism. It immediately launched a small White army, the bulk of whose forces, to the tune of about 5,000 men, were formed from the Schutzkorps (27th Jagers Battalion of the German army, consisting of young Finns, as we have mentioned), a brigade of Swedish volunteers and others recruited from the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois youth. Mannerheim, a former general of the Russian army, of Swedish origin, took the command of these troops and promised `to restore order within a fortnight'. The arming of the Whites was completed with the proceeds from several lucky raids against the Russian garrisons in the north, which had actually been committed with the complicity of their commanders.

The Red Guards numbered only about 1,500 men at the beginning of hostilities, and these were poorly armed. Initiative rested with the Whites who, since they controlled the cities of the Bothnian Gulf, Uleaborg, Vaasa and Kuopio, as well as agrarian Fin-land in the north, held a continuous front from the Gulf to Lake Ladoga. There were Russian garrisons at Sveaborg, Viipuri and Tammerfors, a town in the centre of the country, and part of the Baltic fleet happened to be at Helsinki. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Dybenko and Smilga had established Bolshevik organizations among these troops and crews. The Russian garrison at Tammerfors, commanded by Svechnikov, a revolutionary officer, repulsed Mannerheim's first attacks. Under the protection of the Russians the Red Guards of Finland were able to arm and complete their organization. At this point Soviet troops had to retire from Fin- land under the provisions of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. All that remained of them were about a thousand volunteers incorporated in the Red Guard, and many of these were longing to get back home. Eero Haapalainen, a Finnish Socialist, and Svechnikov directed operations. The Reds opened a general offensive at the beginning of March: this failed, but the setback strengthened the Reds' determination to win. Between 15 January and 1 April, the organizational efforts of the workers' government succeeded in assembling a force of 60,000 men (of whom about 30,000 were stationed in the rear) and in winning numerous partial victories at the front.

Svinhufvud, the head of the White government, obtained the backing of Wilhelm II. Twenty thousand Germans under the command of von der Goltz disembarked at Hanko, Helsinki and Lovisa, taking the Reds from behind. Helsinki was captured after a bitter street battle in which the Germans and Whites made workers' wives and children march in front of them - around a hundred of these were killed. The capture was followed by atrocious reprisals. The Workers' House was bombarded by artillery. A Swedish newspaper published the following item: `Forty Red women who were said to have had arms were led out on the ice and shot without trial.[4] Over 300 corpses were picked up in the street.

Within the workers' government the moderate current represented by Tanner was so strong that rigorous measures were only adopted against White agents behind the lines when it was too late. Often the counter-revolutionaries appearing before the tribunals were sentenced to nothing more than a fine or a mild term of imprisonment. Any summary executions were entirely due to the initiative of the Red Guards. The irresolution of the government, the differences in policy among its leaders, their refusal to push the revolution any further, and the timidity of the agrarian reforms, as well as the effect of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, all helped to weaken the Reds. The landing of the German troops had a most demoralizing impact. The power of Germany had reached its maximum at that moment.

Mannerheim surrounded Tammerfors, where 10,000 Reds led by a few Russian officers resisted furiously. The town was captured in house-to-house fighting after street battles lasting several days. Two hundred Reds were shot there, including two excellent leaders, Colonel Bulatsel and Lieutenant Mukhanov. Several thousand of the Reds managed to flee, around 2,000 were killed in the fighting or massacred later, 5,000 were taken prisoner.[5]

The decisive battle was fought at Tavastehus, between Tammerfors and Helsinki. Between 20,000 and 25,000 Reds converged on this point, pushed from north to south by Mannerheim and in the opposite direction by von der Goltz; their retreat to the east was cut off. Against the orders of their commanders they brought their families with them and often all their meagre possessions. It was the migration of a populace rather than the march of an army. Capable of turning at any moment into a chaos of fugitives, this mass of people was hardly able to manoeuvre. The Whites raked them with shrapnel. When surrounded, they fought heroically for two days before surrendering. A few thousand of them cut a way out for themselves to the east. The surrender was followed by a massacre, in which the killing of the wounded was the rule. Ten thousand prisoners remained; these were interned at Riihimaki. On 12 May Viipuri fell. A few thousand Red Guards took refuge in Russia.

The victors massacred the vanquished. It has been known since antiquity that class wars are the most frightful. There are no more bloody or atrocious victories than those won by the propertied classes. Since the bloodbath inflicted on the Paris Commune by the French bourgeoisie, the world had seen nothing to compare in horror with what took place in Finland. From the very beginning of the civil war `in the zone occupied by the Whites, membership of a workers' organization meant arrest, and any office in one meant death by shooting'.[6] The massacre of the Socialists reached such a scale that people lost all interest in the topic.' At Kummen, where forty-three Red Guards had fallen in battle, nearly 500 persons were executed afterwards. There were `hundreds' shot at Kotka, a town of 13,000 inhabitants: `They were not even asked their names, but led out in batches' At Rauma, according to bourgeois newspapers, `five hundred prisoners captured on 15

May received the punishment they deserved on the same day'. `On 14 April two hundred Red Guards were shot in the district of Toolo in Helsinki.... The Reds were hunted down from house to house. Many women were among the victims.' At Sveaborg public executions took place on Trinity Sunday. Near Lahti, where thou-sands of prisoners were taken by the Whites, `the machine-guns worked for several hours each day.... In one day some two hundred women were shot with explosive bullets: lumps of flesh were spattered out in all directions. ... ' At Viipuri 600 Red Guards were lined up in three rows along the edge of the fortress moat and machine-gunned in cold blood. Among the intellectuals murdered we may mention an editor of the journal Social- Democrat, Jukho Rainio and the writer Irmari Rantamala who, when taken by boat to the place of execution, `jumped overboard in an attempt to drown. His coat prevented him from sinking and the Whites killed him in the water with rifle-fire.' No statistics exist on the number of those massacred: current estimates vary between ten and twenty thousand.

There is, however, an official figure for the number of Red prisoners interned in concentration camps: 70,000. The camps were ravaged by famine, vermin and epidemic. A report signed by a well-known Finnish doctor, Professor R. Tigerstedt, notes that `between 6 July and 31 July 1918, the number of detainees that were held in the camp at Tammerfors and the adjacent prison varied between 6,027 and 8,597. 2,347 prisoners died in these twenty-six days and the weekly mortality-rate among detainees was as high as 407 per thousand.' By 25 July there were still 50,818 revolutionaries imprisoned in Finland. In the September of the same year 25,820 cases were still awaiting investigation by the courts. The bourgeoisie became temporarily interested in the possibility of exporting its captives to supply manpower to Germany. A bill was passed authorizing the transportation abroad of men condemned to forced labour. Germany, now depopulated by the war, would have exchanged chemical and mineral products for this penal labour force. The implementation of this project was prevented by the German revolution.

The purge of Finnish society continued for months in all fields. On 16 May warrants of arrest were issued against all former Social-Democratic deputies still living in the country. (The revolutionaries had either perished or escaped by now.) Three of them allegedly `committed suicide' in prison in the night of 2 July. Ten more were condemned to death. The Supreme Court set aside this verdict in January 1919 and pronounced one death penalty, six sentences of imprisonment for life, four of twelve years, one of eleven years, five of ten years, five of nine years, fifteen of eight years and two of seven years: `Many of the condemned,' writes Kataya, `were that type of Social-Democrat who, with all the art-fulness of traitors to Socialism, had spent all their lives serving bourgeois society. The bourgeoisie avenged itself blindly.' It is usual for the White terror to strike indifferently at the reformists - for whom the triumphant bourgeoisie no longer has any use - and the revolutionaries. Once order was re-established, the Finnish bourgeoisie toyed with the idea of a monarch drawn from the Hohenzollern family. The increasingly precarious situation in Germany caused it to abandon this plan.

It seems to be no exaggeration to declare that the total number of Finnish workers struck down by the White terror (whether killed or given long prison sentences) was more than 100,000: about a quarter of the entire proletariat.[7] `All organized workers have been either shot or imprisoned,' wrote a group of Finnish Communists at the beginning of 1919. This fact permits us to draw an important theoretical deduction on the nature of the White terror, which has been confirmed since by the experience of Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, etc. The White terror is not to be explained by the frenzy of battle, the violence of class hatred or any other psychological factor. The psychosis of civil war plays a purely secondary role. The terror is in reality the result of a calculation and a historical necessity. The victorious propertied classes are perfectly aware that they can only ensure their own domination in the aftermath of a social battle by inflicting on the working class a bloodbath savage enough to enfeeble it for tens of years afterwards. And since the class in question is far more numerous than the wealthy classes, the number of victims must be very great.

The total extermination of all the advanced and conscious elements of the proletariat is, in short, the rational objective of the White terror. In this sense, a vanquished revolution - regardless of its tendency - will always cost the proletariat far more than a victorious revolution, no matter what sacrifices and rigours the latter may demand.

One more observation. The butcheries in Finland took place in April 1918. Up to this moment the Russian revolution had virtually everywhere displayed great leniency towards its enemies. It had not used terror. We have noted a few bloody episodes in the civil war in the south, but these were exceptional. The victorious bourgeoisie of a small nation which ranks among the most enlightened societies of Europe[8] was the first to remind the Russian proletariat that woe to the vanquished! is the first law of social war.



[1] `Let us not forget', wrote Lenin from Zurich on 11 (24) March 1917, `that we have, adjoining Petrograd, one of the most advanced countries, a real republican country, Finland, which from 1905 to 1917, under the shelter of the revolutionary battles in Russia, has developed its democracy in conditions of relative peace, and won the majority of its people for Socialism. ... The Finnish workers are better organizers than us and will help us in this field; in their own fashion they will form a vanguard pressing towards the foundation of the Socialist Republic' (Third Letter from Afar, before Lenin's return to Russia).

[2] The author of these lines, O. W. Kuusinen, rallied to Communism during the Finnish revolution. The quotation above is from his remarkable pamphlet The Finnish Revolution: A Self Criticism (Revoliutsiya v Finlandii: Samokritika) (Petrograd, 1919). [A slightly abridged version of the English translation published in London, 1919, is given in Labour Monthly, February and March 1940.] O. W. Kuusinen belongs today (1929) to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. [He died in 1967, having played an obsequious role in all the turns of Moscow's international policy, including a spell as `Prime Minister' of the `Finnish Democratic Republic' set up briefly as a cover for Stalin's invasion of Finland in 1939-40.]

[3] Edvard Torniainen, The Workers' Revolution in Finland [no other title available] (Moscow, 1919).

[4] C. D. Kataya, La Terreur Bourgeoise en Finlande (Petrograd, 1919). [Published in French by the section of the Communist International's ad-ministration which Serge was put in charge of on his return to Russia in 1919.]

[5] M. S. Svechnikov, Revolution and Civil War in Finland, 1917-18 (Revo liutsiya i Grazhdanskaya Voina v Finlandii 1917-18) (Moscow and Petrograd, 1923).

[6] We are continuing to quote from C. D. Kataya. Most of these facts have become notorious from other sources, and the description of them given by our comrade is certainly an under-statement.

[7] The bourgeois press in all countries kept silence about these facts but spoke at length on `the crimes of the Reds'. It seems instructive here to cite the figure for the Reds' victims given by a pro-White author, Lars Henning Soderhjelm, in a book translated from Swedish into English and intended for propaganda consumption abroad: The Red Insurrection in Finland in 1918 (London, 1919). Soderhjelm calculates that `over a thousand' persons perished bbhind the lines of fighting under the blows of the Reds; however, the statistics he gives indicate only 624 persons.

[8] Finland has practically no illiterates.



9 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by S2W on January 28, 2015

This text by Serge has a number of inaccuracies:

-It is vague what "100 000 struck down by white terror" exactly means. There were 30846 documented KIAs and MIAs (including those who perished in prison camps), 25978 of these from the red side. There could be a lot of undocumented deaths, but hardly more than 10 000. Almost all sentenced were amnestied during following 3 years.
- Finland in 1918 was hardly an advanced nation, although in average more developed than rest of the Russia.
- White guards was not organised in Northern Finland and Vaasa, it was just their strongest area.
- Jager movement had mixed political and class background, although bourgeoisie was dominating it. Around 1/3 of the Jagers were held back by German imperial army and not allowed to return to Finland as they were considered politically too unreliable, and it was suspected that they could join red guards-
- Instead of a "resolution making clear reference to the need for a bourgeois dictatorship. ", parliament made a resolution to disarm workers guards and declare "defence corps" (that is, white guards) as the official army.

There could be other inaccuracies, I will read more carefully in the future to check them.