The Russian Revolution 100 Years On: Newcastle Meeting of the CWO


This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the Communist Workers' Organisation has participated in a number of meetings to commemorate this. On 18 November the CWO held a meeting in Newcastle to discuss its legacy, the revolutionary events of 1917-1918 as well as the process of degeneration. The following document – The Russian Revolution: From Workers’ Inspiration to Proletarian Tragedy – served as the basis of the presentation and was followed by a discussion.

Submitted by Internationali… on December 28, 2017

A brief introduction to the views of the CWO and others in the Communist Left opened up the meeting. We start our analysis from the premise that socialism cannot be achieved by a minority, but only by an active movement of millions of people across the world. Instead of being merely passive voters, or waiting for salvation from good-willed politicians, it is the mass of people alone who can transform society by their own activity. It follows then that the Russian Revolution cannot be explained only in Russian terms, but as the first step in an international challenge to a capitalist system which had brought humanity to its knees during the imperialist war. At the time revolutionaries like V. Lenin or R. Luxemburg all understood that the problem of socialism could only be posed in Russia – it required revolutions everywhere else to answer the question. Despite its final defeat, the Russian experience between 1917 and 1918 demonstrates what a revolutionary working class is capable of – and by studying the remnants of this defeat the working class can find the promise of our future victory. The introduction was warmly applauded by the audience and fully supported by members of the ICC present.

During the discussion a number of issues were also touched upon, among them the effects of the Civil War and militarisation on the working class in Russia, the changes which the Bolshevik party underwent after October, the national question, as well as the real nature of soviet power. Defects in soviet democracy (such as the fact that the VTsIK, the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets, failed to meet in the crucial months between June 1918 and February 1920), and symptoms of degeneration (the creation of the Red Army and the Cheka and their gradual decoupling from soviet supervision), were also noted.

“The tragedy is that the party that the workers turned to in their revolutionary assault was also the party that substituted itself for the real movement (as the latter declined) and we have suffered the consequences ever since. We hope we have shown this afternoon that this is not the real legacy of the Russian Revolution which, for a brief time, opened up the prospect of an entirely new society run by the workers themselves. Given the continual economic, social and political crises that capitalism produces regularly, that perspective is still on the historical agenda.”

The Russian Revolution:

From Workers’ Inspiration to Proletarian Tragedy

"On the evening of October 25th [November 7], when preparations were underway for the storming of the Winter Palace, the Bolsheviks assembled about 20,000 Red Guards, sailors and soldiers before that last refuge of the Provisional Government. But within the palace there were not more than 3000 defenders, and many of those left their posts during the night. Thanks to the Bolsheviks’ overwhelming superiority there were no serious battles in the capital … and the total number of those killed on both sides was no more than 15, with no more than 60 wounded."

"During these critical hours, as all the main strategic points in the city passed under Bolshevik control (telephone and telegraph exchanges, bridges, railroad stations, the Winter Palace etc.), Petrograd continued on the whole to go about its normal business. Most of the soldiers remained in the barracks, the plants and the factories continued to operate, and in the schools none of the classes were interrupted. There were no strikes or mass demonstrations such had accompanied the February Revolution. The movie theatres (called cinematographias in those days) were filled, there were regular performances in all the theatres, and people strolled as usual on the Nevsky Prospect. The ordinary non-political person would not even have noticed the historic events taking place; even on the streetcar lines, the main form of public transportation in 1917, service remained normal."

Such was the picture painted by the Soviet dissident historian Roy Medvedev but you can find similar accounts in Trotsky and John Reed. The lack of drama and the apparently mere military takeover have fed a bourgeois lie which has now endured for a century that the October Revolution was simply a coup d’état by a band of ruthless adventurers who stopped a democratic revolution in its tracks. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist class, not to mention modern-day Mensheviks, and anarchists all over the world still feel they have to perpetuate this myth. And, of course, as everyone knows, the revolution did end in the brutal and anti-working class regime of Stalinism so the actions of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 can be blamed for that too.

What we want to do today is to concentrate on three questions about the revolution.

Was it a genuine workers’ revolution or was it a mere coup? Were the Bolsheviks just pretending to be in favour of soviet power in order to win control before destroying it? Why and how did the revolution degenerate into what would later become a new form of capitalist dictatorship in the USSR?

Was October 1917 a genuine workers’ revolution or was it a mere coup?

In its lack of mass involvement the October Revolution is often contrasted with the February Revolution which overthrew the Tsarist regime which had ruled Russia for centuries. Unlike October the February revolution arose out of a strike by women workers who demanded bread and an end to the war. By 1917 the war had taken the lives of millions in battle and ethnic cleansing as well as disease. There were mutinies and strikes in all the belligerent countries but in Russia the incompetence of Tsarism made the situation even more desperate. There should have been no lack of bread but because the economy was so weak it could not supply the army and the civil population at the same time.

When women decided to strike on International Women’s Day (March 8 in the modern calendar) the regime was taken by surprise and even revolutionaries in political organisations were caught off guard. However by the end of the first day in which no-one apparently died the women had brought out many other factories and on the second day the strikes and demonstrations spread. At first the commander of the Tsarist troops and police in Petrograd tried not to use ammunition against them because he did not want another “Bloody Sunday” as in 1905 (which would have overthrown the Tsar if only the troops then had not remained loyal to him). On the fourth day (which ironically was a Sunday) with the movement spreading the troops began to fire on the demonstrations. Crowds would scatter and reform down side streets and then march on only to meet more troops. Although some workers had hand guns they were relying on the troops to come over to them. In this too women workers played a major role in facing up to armed Cossacks and shaming them into lowering their weapons. By Monday some regiments had turned on their officers and this was the decisive factor in turning a strike wave of hundreds of thousands into a revolution. This was not going to be another 1905 defeat.

In the demonstrations some workers began to call for the formation of soviets – they had not forgotten the organisation they had formed in 1905 to coordinate their strikes. But whilst they were still on the streets others in the corridors of power were already working out how to tame the movement. After much hesitation the parties represented in the Tsar’s fake Parliament the Duma, the Octobrists and Kadets (who really wanted to keep the monarchy) announced the formation of a Provisional Government. This was approved of by the so-called “moderate socialists” of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (or Essaires) but they knew that this Provisional Government selected by old Tsarist supporters would spark no confidence in the working class or the insurrectionary part of the armed forces. When soldiers advanced on the Duma they thus hastily announced the reformation of the Petrograd Soviet from 1905. But at this time the real revolutionaries amongst the working class were out on the streets with the workers and the Mensheviks had called for the first session to meet in the Tauride Palace at 7.00 that evening. Not surprisingly there were many more Mensheviks and soldiers’ representatives there. When the leading Bolshevik organiser in Petrograd Shlyapnikov arrived he thought that only 50 delegates were actually from factories.

This was how Russia got not one government in March 1917 but it was clear from the beginning that the workers’ and soldiers’ allegiance was to the Soviet and not the PG. When Milyukov announced the ministers to the waiting crowd people just laughed and someone shouted “who elected you?” To which Milyukov replied “the revolution”. This was in fact a blatant and conscious attempt to steal the revolution from the workers who were still dying on the streets. It would not have succeeded but the Mensheviks, true to their programme had decided that proletarian, working class, revolution was not possible in Russia so they supported the Provisional Government. And as they controlled the soviet it meant that this was why this strange dual power came into existence.

But matters did not end there. The elemental movement of the working class did not stop. On the contrary the February Revolution opened up a class struggle in both factories and fields. Workers threw hated managers and chargehands out of the factories in wheelbarrows and factory committees not only took up control of many aspects of production but even organised canteens and sent out parties to buy food in the countryside. Strikes did not decrease but increased as workers demanded more pay and shorter hours. In the countryside the peasants were slower to move but once they were sure the Tsar had gone they began seizing land from the pomeschki and burning down the manor houses. In the army soldiers elected regimental committees and officers had to listen to them.

The Provisional Government hated all this and the Soviet Executive run by the Mensheviks and SRs tried to put a stop to strikes as “unpatriotic” now that Russia was a “democracy”. But the real “democracy” was to be found with the workers, the peasants in the fields and in uniform in the armed services. This democracy now faced up to “census society” (i.e. the privileged classes of the old order) in the Provisional Government. This democracy increasingly looked to the Bolsheviks, the Inter-district committee which stood between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, the anarchists (although they were few in number) and the left wing of the SRs which in the course of 1917 was to split from the Right. “Census society”, that is the bourgeoisie, rallied behind the Kadets in the Provisional Government.

The Bolsheviks were only 8000 strong in March 1917 with 3000 in Petrograd but 80% of them were workers. Far from being the iron-disciplined organisation of Stalinist legend they were constantly debating and full of different ideas. This showed straight after the March revolution. Most of the Bolshevik leaders were in exile or in Siberia so the leadership of the Party fell to the workers committees in Petrograd. They cautiously welcomed the new government but only if it brought peace and improved the workers conditions. However when Stalin, Kameniev and Muranov returned from Siberia they took over Pravda and began to write articles not only in support of the PG but even supporting the continuation of the war! This enraged the Bolshevik rank and file who demanded their expulsion from the party. This was the background to the return of Lenin.

Lenin privately told Kameniev he had been swearing at his articles in Pravda but at the Finland Station he now dropped a bombshell by telling a huge reception committee of workers and soldiers that “The Russian Revolution made by you has begun and opened up a new epoch. Long live the world wide socialist revolution!”

In his April Theses Lenin set out to remould the Bolshevik programme around this internationalist theme. It took him a month to convince the party leadership but Bolshevik workers needed no convincing. Within a few days Lenin was pointing out that it was a nonsense to have two powers in the state and that “All Power to the Soviets” was now the way forward for the working class. The other slogan that emerged from this debate was “Bread, peace and land”.

Of these three, the immediate issue was the war. At first the Mensheviks, with their idea that Russia would carry on the war but seek a peace, seemed to have support but they were not in the Provisional Government. In May however Milyukov the Kadet leader and now Foreign Minster wrote to Russia’s Allies a Note which did not talk of peace but of honouring the Tsar’s treaties with them for grabbing land in Europe. The working class was outraged and strikes and demonstrations followed. Milyukov was forced to resign but to smooth things over the Provisional Government was reshuffled with the “moderate socialists” now taking seats in it.

What happens throughout the rest of 1917 is a roller coaster of a class war in which both sides strove for advantage. After Milyukov gave away the real war aims of the Provisional Government some Bolsheviks called for a demonstration against it and they only dropped it on the insistence of the Mensheviks in the Soviet Executive. It looked like a climbdown by the Bolsheviks so to ram home their victory the Mensheviks organised a demonstration in support of the Provisional Government and the Soviet. It backfired spectacularly as Sukhanov (himself a Menshevik) tells us that banner after banner carried Bolshevik slogans with few supporting the Provisional Government. However in this seesaw struggle it was now the Bolsheviks who would suffer a dramatic setback.

Lenin had criticised some young Bolsheviks for carrying a banner “Down with the Provisional Government”. He pointed out that they did not have enough support for this. But the young were not alone. But then the Provisional Government June Offensive ended in another disastrous defeat. For the First Machine Gun Regiment, for sailors at the naval base in Kronstadt and even in the Bolshevik Military Organisation Bolsheviks and anarchists now thought that July was the time for “All power to the soviets” to be acted upon.

Right wing historians always maintain that the so-called July Days were an attempted Bolshevik coup but as Lenin was on holiday the leadership can hardly have been complicit in it. When he heard about it Lenin hastily returned to Bolshevik HQ to meet the demonstrators (who were armed). Ignoring their intentions he basically told them to have a peaceful demonstration before returning home. Lenin also muttered to the leader of the Bolshevik Military Organisation (Podvosiky) that he “ought to be thrashed for this”. The demonstrators though were mystified that Lenin was so discouraging and went on into the city centre where they were fired upon and a general bloodbath ensued. The demonstrators were killed, arrested or forced to flee. The Bolsheviks though did not denounce them and for this they were outlawed, arrested, their press smashed and Lenin was forced to flee to Finland. It looked like the Bolshevik threat to dual power was over.

But the apparent defeat of the Bolsheviks led to another swing of the pendulum. The attacks on the Bolsheviks by new Prime Minister Kerensky gave the right wing Black Hundreds and the upper classes the confidence they had lacked since February. They now looked not only to getting rid of the Bolsheviks but also the soviet and even the PG. And they found their strong man in General Kornilov. Kerensky was forced to appoint him commander in Chief of the Army. His first step was to retreat from Riga. This “sacrifice” as he called it brought Petrograd within the front line and thus subject to military discipline. No-one quite knows what happened next but Kornilov started advancing on Petrograd (it seems at first with Kerensky’s agreement) but when Kerensky realised he was not just going to overthrow the soviet but himself he called upon the population of Petrograd to defend the government. The upper classes were only waiting for Kornilov’s victory so the only ones who could save Kerensky were the working class. The best organised amongst the working class were the Bolsheviks who despite their illegal status and despite the hesitations after July were still the most popular working class party. It was the Bolshevik Red Guards and workers who rallied in vast numbers as they had done in February to defend Petrograd, though not Kerensky. In the end there was virtually no fighting as agitators sent to discuss with Kornilov’s troops were easily able to persuade them that Kornilov was lying about his intentions. Kornilov’s army melted away and the Bolsheviks were once again legalised and their leaders let out of prison.

Of course this polarisation meant that the Bolsheviks grew enormously in popularity but just an aside at this point which answers the second question posed at the beginning. At this point Lenin offered a compromise to the Mensheviks and SRs who controlled the Soviet Executive. He said if they took power the Bolsheviks would support them (even though the Bolsheviks would be out of the government). This is hardly the offer of a power-mad party. Soviet power was what they stood for above all else at this time no matter who was in charge.

The offer was not only refused but the Mensheviks and SRs now tried to postpone the calling of a new Soviet Congress and even announced that it was time to dissolve the soviets in favour of the “future liberal parliamentary regime” which would be ushered in by the Constituent Assembly. They postponed calling a new Congress of Soviets for 2 months. and in that time the Bolsheviks popularity amongst the workers and soldiers grew enormously. They alone were the party that stood for soviet power and they had grown to 350,000.

Lenin now saw that “All Power to the Soviets” had a majority in the working class but wanted the Bolsheviks to seize power and hand it to the Congress when it finally met in November. Once again the Bolsheviks refused to follow him. After a month of debate he finally managed to get the Central Committee to agree to an insurrection in principle but the Committee never set a date for it. They did not need to. Everyone knew that the Provisional Government was finished and that it had no support. It just needed the Bolsheviks to act. By this time Trotsky had become Chair of the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee which the Mensheviks and SRs refused to join. He made plans to take over the key buildings in the city but before he could do so two leading Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kameniev published their opposition to the CCs decision to organise an insurrection. For two weeks a press campaign for and against the Bolsheviks raged but the October insurrection only started when Kerensky finally made the first move ordering the arrest of Bolshevik leaders, the seizing of the Bolshevik press and the closing of the bridges over the Neva to prevent workers reaching the centre of the city. These moves were prevented by workers and soldiers loyal to the Bolsheviks but it gave the signal for the takeover.

People did not need to die on the barricades because the victory was already welcomed by the mass of the workers. Isaak Steinberg a Left SR wrote later that the October Revolution came as a relief after 8 months of agonised waiting.

Were the Bolsheviks just pretending to be in favour of soviet power in order to win control before destroying it?

The next accusation against the Bolsheviks is that they only pretended that they supported the working class but as soon as they got in power they began to build up party power at the expense of the workers. This is a travesty of the facts. Obviously in the end we all know that the Bolshevik Party became the agent of the counterrevolution but this was neither premeditated nor inevitable and the process of degeneration really only began in the early summer of 1918.

Let’s briefly look at their record in that first “heroic period” (Kritsman) of the revolution before March 1918.

• The Second Soviet Congress overwhelmingly accepted the power presented to it by the Bolsheviks and the Executive Committee approved the setting up of a Council of Peoples’ Commissars (Sovnarkom) made up of Bolsheviks and Left SRs (although the latter did not take up their seats until December). All other parties walked out of the Soviet and refused to accept anything other than a return to a coalition with the bourgeoisie.
• The new government announced Russia’s withdrawal from the war. It legalised peasant land seizures and workers’ control in the factories. Officials were paid only the average wage of a skilled industrial worker.
• Laws brought in equal pay for women, divorce at the request of either partner, abortion and equal status for children of unmarried parents. Homosexuality was decriminalised. Church and State were separated and freedom of religion was established (thus ending the legal oppression of Jews). Other social achievements were the introduction of free education (alongside a mass literacy campaign), free maternity homes and nurseries. And “Soviet Russia was the first nation in history to witness the birth across its land of thousands of communal organizations spontaneously engaging in collective life” (R. Stites Revolutionary Dreams)
• Nationalities of the old Russian empire were given the right to self-determination.
• Peoples’ Courts were set up with elected officials to dispense justice and avoid mob lynchings.
• Most of this took place in the first six months of the revolution. During this time the soviet principle was extended. 400 or so more soviets were established across Russia, the principle of immediate recall of delegates was established and Congresses of Soviets were taking place every three months.
• In this same period the Bolsheviks (soon to take the name Communists) understood that the party can lead but it cannot make a revolution. This is the task of the working class itself. Lenin told the Seventh Congress of the RCP(B) “… socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it for themselves”. (Collected Works Volume 27 p. 135)
At the time Lenin was consistent on this throughout the first 6 months of the revolution.

“Creative activity at the grassroots is the basic factor of the new public life. Let the workers’ control at their factories. Let them supply the villages with manufactures in exchange for grain… Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach: living creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.” (Collected Works Vol. 26 p.288)

There are many more such quotes at this time.

Why and how did the revolution degenerate into what would later become a new form of capitalist dictatorship in the USSR?

Your have to remember what our comrade said at the beginning of the meeting and what we have already shown since. The Bolsheviks did not think of the revolution in national terms. They knew that without a world revolution the experiment they were carrying out in Russia could not survive. All the Bolshevik leaders said this many times over. However they had promised not only “all power to the soviets” but also “bread, peace and land”.

On the land question the 80% of Russia’s population who were peasants were very grateful that the Bolsheviks has done something the peasant party had not done even when it controlled the Minister of Agriculture and legalised land seizures. In the Civil War which was to come this was to play an important part.

Peace was more difficult. An armistice was signed with the Germans in December 1917 and the aim of the next 3 months of negotiations was to try to avoid giving in to the demands of German imperialism in the hope that the German Revolution would break. This was not an empty pious wish since nearly all the people in the belligerent countries were at the end of their tether and the Bolsheviks hoped that the example of Russia would ignite the working class everywhere.

It did not happen and in March the Bolsheviks were forced to sign a draconian treaty with Germany which robbed Russia of much of its precious agricultural lands. And as before the debates over this Treaty of Brest-Litovsk inside the Bolsheviks and the soviets were long and fierce. In the end a further German advance forced acceptance. Lenin justified the retreat by saying the Russian workers needed “perdyshka” – a breathing space and that the world revolution had not come as quickly as they hoped but it would come as “without a world revolution we are doomed”.

But March 1918 was a turning point in the revolution in other ways too. Until this time Lenin had been a supporter of the idea of workers’ self-activity and the fact that only the working class and not the party could build socialism. However Russia was hit by a terrible economic crisis which had grown worse throughout 1917. One historian has likened the economic crisis the Bolsheviks had inherited to the Black Death. Industrial production had fallen to less than 20% of the 1913 level and two thirds of the working class had left the cities. The harvest of 1917 had been one of the worst on record so by the following spring there was little bread. The ration was one eighth of that of 1916.

The first idea was to try to extort more food from the richer peasants who were assumed to be storing it (for speculative purposes) and requisitioning squads were sent out. They had no goods to exchange for the food and juts tried to leave notes promising to pay later. As money was becoming valueless they were fiercely resisted by armed peasants and a war within a war now took place.

In June the Sovnarkom or Council of Peoples’ Commissars also decided that, to raise industrial production, bourgeois specialists and one-man management would have to be introduced in the factories. The Bolsheviks were slipping back towards older social democratic ideas about the need to build up the productive forces and ignored that Marx noted the most important productive force in society was not a factory or a machine but the working class.

Again there was ferocious opposition to this from the Left Communists who argued that the party was retreating from its original position and that only the workers could build socialism. They were right but in the economic crisis of 1918 the situation was so desperate that the Party adopted Lenin’s ideas.

Of course the food crisis made things worse and workers started voting for other parties in the elections. The Bolsheviks first ignored one where they were still the largest party but not the majority in Nizhni Novgorod in March 1918.

Worse was to come. The campaign of terror launched by the SRs and others against the Bolsheviks led to the Cheka becoming a secret police outside of the legal work of the people’s courts.

And when the Allied powers gave support to the Whites the regime was engulfed in a war it had tried to avoid. The Civil War lasted until Dec 1920 and the Bolsheviks won but only at the cost of building up a militarised state which created from scratch a Red Army of 4 to 5 millions. The human cost was also terrible. 4 million died with less than 350,000 actually killed in fighting. All the rest died from typhoid and typhus. The massive famine of 1921 doubled the death toll of the Civil War.

The Bolsheviks had not forgotten that the world revolution might come to save them even at this point. In 1919 they had set up the Third International to promote it although it only really got to work in 1920 by which time workers’ revolutions had failed in Germany, Bavaria and Hungary. The failure of the Spartakist Revolt in Germany in January 1919 had been critical but that is another story.

Which brings us to March 1921. The triple whammy of the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, the banning of factions at the Bolshevik Tenth Party Congress, the introduction of the New Economic Policy and the failure of the March Action did more than represent more retreats they added up to the beginning of a new period in which counter-revolution raised its ugly head.

Kronstadt offered a chance to halt the decline. The Kronstadters protest was not initially an armed protest. Had Kalinin and other Bolsheviks entered into dialogue they would have found that the Kronstadters economic demands were not much different from what the Bolsheviks had already decided to do (NEP). However the Bolsheviks were not prepared to call for fresh Soviet elections. They still had the siege mentality of the Civil War (peasant revolts were still flaring up right across Russia) and feared that Kronstadt might become a base for a counter-revolution once the ice melted and prevented access to Kotlin Island. After Kalinin’s failure to listen many of the Bolsheviks in Kronstadt sided with the Kronstadters. In the subsequent massacre the Bolshevik assailants lost many more than the Kronstadters but the biggest loss was to the revolution itself.

Within a year the Bolsheviks, via the Comintern, were proposing united fronts with the very social democrats who had slaughtered communists the year before and the way was open for the abandonment of world revolution and the adoption of socialism in one country. The lie that Stalinism was communism and that it came out of the Russian Revolution has been the stuff of bourgeois propaganda for decades. Stalinism was not the ultimate result of the proletarian origins of the Russian Revolution, it was the result of its defeat. The tragedy is that the party that the workers turned to in their revolutionary assault was also the party that substituted itself for the real movement (as the latter declined) and we have suffered the consequences ever since. We hope we have shown this afternoon that this is not the real legacy of the Russian Revolution which is something entirely different. For a brief time, it opened up the prospect of an entirely new society run by the workers themselves. Given the continual economic, social and political crises that capitalism produces regularly, that perspective of a different way of doing things is still on the historical agenda.