Who were the Bolsheviki, and what did they want?
Up to the year 1903, the Bolsheviki were members of the Russian Socialist Party; that is, Social Democrats, followers of Karl Marx and his teachings. In that year the Social Democratic Labor Party of Russia split on the question of organization and other minor matters. Under the leadership of Lenin the opposition formed a new party, which called itself Bolshevik. The old party became known as Menshevik.*
The Bolsheviki were more revolutionary than the mother party from which they seceded. When the world war broke out they did not betray the cause of the workers and join the patriotic jingoes, as did the majority of the other Socialist parties. To their credit be it said that, like most of the Anarchists and Left Socialists Revolutionists, the Bolsheviki opposed the war on the ground that the proletariat had no interest in the quarrels of conflicting capitalist groups. When the February Revolution began the Bolsheviki realized that political changes alone would do no good, would not solve the labor and social problems. They knew that putting one government in place of another would not help matters. What was needed was a radical, fundamental change.
Though Marxists like their Menshevik step-brothers (believers in the theories of Karl Marx), the Bolsheviki did not agree with the Mensheviki in their attitude to the great upheaval. They scorned the idea that Russia could not have a proletarian revolution because capitalist industry had not developed there to its fullest possibilities. They realized that it was not merely a bourgeois political change that was taking place. They knew that the people were not satisfied with the abolition of the Tsar and not content with a constitution. They saw that things were developing further. They understood that the taking of the land by the peasantry and the growing expropriation of the possessing classes, did not signify "reform." Closer to the masses than the Mensheviki, the Bolsheviki felt the popular pulse and more correctly judged the spirit and purpose of the tremendous events. It was foremost of all Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, who believed that the time was approaching when he and his Party might grasp the reins of government and establish Socialism on the Bolshevik plan.
Bolshevik Socialism meant the seizing of political power by the Bolsheviki in the name of the proletariat. They agreed with the Anarchists that Communism would be the best economic system; that is, the land, the machinery of production and distribution, and all public utilities should be owned in common, excluding private possession in those things. But while the Anarchists wanted the people as a whole to be the owners, the Bolsheviki held that everything must be in the hands of the State, which meant that the government would not only be the political ruler of the country but also its industrial and economic master. The Bolsheviki as Marxists believed in a strong government to run the country, with absolute power over the lives and fortunes of the people. In other words, the Bolshevik idea was a dictatorship, that dictatorship to be in the hands of themselves, of their political Party.
They called such an arrangement the "dictatorship of the proletariat," because their Party, they said, represented the best and foremost element, the advance guard of the working class, and their Party should therefore be dictator in the name of the proletariat.
The great difference between the Anarchists and the Bolsheviki was that the Anarchists wanted the masses to decide and manage their affairs for themselves, through their own organizations, without orders from any political party. They wanted real liberty and voluntary cooperation in joint ownership. The Anarchists therefore called themselves free Communists, or Communist Anarchists, while the Bolsheviki were compulsory, governmental or State Communists. The Anarchists didn't want any State to dictate to the people, because such dictation, they argued, always means tyranny and oppression. The Bolsheviki, on the other hand, while repudiating the capitalist State and bourgeois dictatorship, wanted the State and the dictatorship to be theirs, of their Party.
You can therefore see that there is all the difference in the world between the Anarchists and the Bolsheviki. The Anarchists are opposed to all government; the Bolsheviki are strong for government on condition that it is in their hands. `They are not against the big stick," as a clever friend of mine is wont to say; "they only want to be at the right end of it."
But the Bolsheviki realized that the views and methods advocated by the Anarchists were sound and practical, and that only such methods could assure the success of the Revolution. They decided to make use of Anarchist ideas for their own purposes. So it happened that although the Anarchists were themselves too weak in numbers to reach the masses, they succeeded in influencing the Bolsheviki, who presently began to advocate Anarchist methods and tactics, pretending of course that they were their own.
But they were not their own. You might say that it does not matter who advocates or helps to carry out an idea that will benefit the people. But if you think it over a bit you will realize that it matters very much, as all history and particularly the Russian Revolution proves.
It matters because everything depends on the motives, on the purpose and spirit in which a thing is carried out. Even the best idea can be applied in such a manner as to bring much harm. Because the masses, fired by the great idea, may fail to notice how, in what manner, and by what means it is being carried out. But if carried out in the wrong spirit or by false means, even the noblest and finest idea can be turned to the ruin of the country and its people.
That is just what happened in Russia. The Bolsheviki advocated and partly carried out Anarchist ideas, but the Bolsheviki were not Anarchists and they did not at heart believe in those ideas. They used them for their own purposes--purposes that were not Anarchistic, that were really anti- Anarchistic, against the Anarchist idea. What were those Bolshevik purposes?
The Anarchist idea was to do away with oppression of every kind, to abolish the rule of one class over another, to substitute the management of things for the mastery of man over man, to secure liberty and well-being for all. Anarchist methods were calculated to bring about such a result.
The Bolsheviki used the Anarchist methods for an entirely different purpose. They did not want to abolish political domination and government: they only meant to get it into their own hands. Their object was, as already explained, to gain control of political power by their Party and establish a Bolshevik dictatorship. It is necessary to get this very clearly in order to understand what happened in the Russian Revolution and why "proletarian dictatorship" quickly became a Bolshevik dictatorship over the proletariat.
It was soon after the February Revolution that the Bolsheviki began to proclaim Anarchist principles and tactics. Among these were "direct action," "the general strike," "expropriation," and similar modes of action by the masses. As I have said, the Bolsheviki as Marxists did not believe in such methods. At least they had not believed in them until the Revolution. For years previously Socialists everywhere, including the Bolsheviki, had ridiculed the Anarchist advocacy of the general strike as the strongest weapon of the workers in their struggle against capitalist exploitation and government oppression. "The general strike is general nonsense," was the war cry of Socialists against the Anarchists. Socialists did not want the workers to resort to direct mass action and the general strike, because it might lead to revolution and the taking of things into their own hands. The Socialists wanted no independent revolutionary action by the masses. They advocated political activity. They wanted the workers to put them, the Socialists, in power, so they could do the revolutionizing.
If you glance over the Socialist writings for the past forty years, you will be convinced that Socialists were always against the general strike and direct action, as they were also opposed to expropriation and revolutionary syndicalism, which is another name for workers' soviets. Socialist congresses passed drastic resolutions against, and Socialist agitators fiercely denounced, all such revolutionary tactics.
But the Bolsheviki accepted these Anarchist methods and began advocating them with new-born conviction. Not, of course, at the outbreak of the Revolution, in February, 1917. They did it much later, when they saw that the masses were not content with mere political changes and were demanding bread instead of a constitution. The swiftly moving events of the Revolution compelled the Bolsheviki to fall in line with the most radical popular aspirations in order not to be left behind by the Revolution, as happened to the Mensheviki, to the Right Socialists Revolutionists, the Constitutional Democrats, and to other reformers.
Very sudden was this Bolshevik acceptance of Anarchist methods, because only a short time before they had been insistently calling for the Constituent Assembly. For months following the February Revolution they were demanding the convocation of a representative body to determine the form of government that Russia was to have. It was right for the Bolsheviki to favor the Constituent Assembly, since they were Marxists and pretended to believe in majority rule. The Constituent Assembly was to be elected by the entire people, and the majority in the Assembly was to decide matters. But the real reason why the Bolsheviki agitated for the Assembly was that they believed the masses were with them and that they, the Bolshevik Party, would he sure of a majority in the Assembly. Presently, however, it became clear that they would prove an insignificant minority in that body. Their hope to dominate it vanished. As good governmentalists and believers in majority rule they should have bowed to the will of the people. But that did not suit the plans of Lenin and his friends. They looked about for other ways of getting control of the government, and their first step was to begin a vehement agitation against the Constituent Assembly.
To be sure, the Assembly could give nothing of value to the country. It was a mere talking machine, lacking all vitality, and unable to accomplish any constructive work. The Revolution was a fact outside and independent of the Constituent Assembly, independent of any legislative or governmental body. It began and was developing in spite of government and constitution, in spite of all opposition, in defiance of law. In its entire character it was unlawful, non-governmental, even anti- governmental. The Revolution followed the healthy natural impulses of the people, their needs and aspirations. In the truest sense it was Anarchistic in spirit and deed. Only the Anarchists, those governmental heretics who believe in liberty and popular initiative as the cure for social ills, welcomed the Revolution as it was and worked for its further growth and deepening, so as to bring the entire life of the country within the sphere of its influence.
All the other parties, including the Bolsheviki, had the sole object of lassoing the revolutionary movement and tying it to their particular band-wagon. The Bolsheviki needed the support of the masses to wrest political power for their Party and to proclaim the Communist dictatorship. Seeing that there was no hope of accomplishing this through the Constituent Assembly, they turned against it, joined the Anarchists in condemning it, and later forcibly dispersed it. But you can see that while the Anarchists could do this honestly, in keeping with their no-government ideas, similar action on the part of the Bolsheviki was rank hypocrisy and political trickery.
Together with their opposition to the Constituent Assembly the Bolsheviki borrowed from the Anarchist arsenal a number of other militant tactics. Thus they proclaimed the great war cry, "All power to the Soviets," advised the workers to ignore and even defy the Provisional Government, and to resort to direct mass action to carry out their demands. At the same time they also adopted the Anarchist methods of the general strike and energetically agitated for the "expropriation of the expropriators."
It is important to keep in mind that these tactics of the Bolsheviki were not, as I have already pointed out, the logical outcome of their ideas, but only a means of gaining the confidence of the masses with the object of achieving political domination. Indeed, those methods were really opposed to Marxist theories and were not believed in by the Bolsheviki. It was therefore not surprising that, once in power, they repudiated all those anti-Marxist ideas and tactics.
The Anarchist mottoes proclaimed by the Bolsheviki did not fail to bring results. The masses rallied to their flag. From a Party with almost no influence, with its main leaders, Lenin and Zinoviev, discredited * and hiding, with Trotsky and others in prison, they quickly became the most important factor in the movement of the revolutionary proletariat.*Because of the widely believed but false charge against Lenin of being in the pay of Germany.
Attentive to the demands of the masses, particularly of the soldiers and workers, voicing their needs with energy and persistence, the Bolsheviki constantly gained greater influence among the people and in the Soviets, especially in those of Petrograd and Moscow. The inactivity of the Provisional Government and its failure to undertake any important changes aggravated the general dissatisfaction and resentment, which were soon to break into fury. The pusillanimous character of the Kerensky regime served to strengthen the hands of the Bolsheviki in the Soviets. Daily the rupture between the latter and the Government grew, presently developing into open antagonism and struggle.
The evident helplessness of the government, the decision of Kerensky to renew an aggressive movement at the front, together with the reintroduction of the death penalty for military desertion, the persecution of the revolutionary elements and the arrest of their leaders, all hastened the crisis. On July 3, 1917, thousands of armed workers, soldiers, and sailors demonstrated in the streets of Petrograd in spite of government prohibition, demanding "All power to the Soviets." Kerensky sought to suppress the popular movement. He even recalled "trusted" regiments from the front to teach the proletariat of Petrograd a "salutary lesson." But in vain were all the efforts of the bourgeoisie, represented by Kerensky, by the Social Democratic leaders and Right Socialists Revolutionists, to stem the rising tide. The July demonstrations were suppressed, but within a short time the revolutionary movement swept the Provisional Government away. The Petrograd Soviet of soldiers and workers declared the government abolished, and Kerensky saved his life only by fleeing in disguise.
The masses backed the Petrograd Soviet. The example of the capital was soon followed by Moscow, thence spreading throughout the country.
It was on October 25th that the Provisional Government was declared abolished, its members arrested, and the Winter Palace taken by the military-revolutionary committee of the Petrograd Soviet. On the same day the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened its sessions. Political government was practically abolished in Russia. All power was now in the hands of the workers, soldiers, and peasants represented in the Congress. The latter immediately began to consider steps to carry out the will of the masses: to terminate the war, secure land for the peasants, the industries for the workers, and establish liberty and welfare for all.
This was the status of the Russian Revolution in October, 1917. Beginning with the abolition of the Tsar, it gradually widened and developed into a thorough industrial and economic reorganization of the country. The spirit of the people and their needs marked out the further progress of the Revolution toward the rebuilding of life on the foundation of political freedom, economic equality, and social justice.
This could be accomplished only as the previous great changes, from February to October, had been; by the joint effort and free cooperation of the workers and peasants, the latter now joined by the bulk of the army.
But such a development did not come within the scheme of the Bolsheviki. As already explained, their aim was to establish a dictatorship wielded by their Party. But a dictatorship means dictation, the imposing of the ruler's will upon the country. The Bolsheviki now felt themselves strong enough to carry out their real object. They dropped the revolutionary and Anarchist mottoes. There must be a vigorous political power, they declared, to carry on the work of the Revolution. Under the guise of protecting the people against the monarchists and the bourgeoisie they began to use repressive measures. As a matter of fact, there were no Tsarist supporters or monarchists in Russia worth mentioning. The people had grown out of Tsarism, and there was no more chance whatever, for a monarchy in Russia. As to the bourgeoisie, there had never been any organized capitalist class in Russia, such as we have in highly developed industrial countries-in the United States, England, France, and Germany. The Russian bourgeoisie was small in numbers and weak. It continued to exist after the February Revolution only by the protection of the Kerensky Government. The moment the latter was abolished, the bourgeoisie went to pieces. It had neither strength nor means to stop the confiscation of its lands and factories by the peasants and workers. Strange as it may seem, it is a fact that throughout this whole period of the Revolution the Russian bourgeoisie did not make any organized and effectual attempt to regain its possessions.
Consider how different it would have been in America. There the capitalists, who are strong and well. organized, would have offered the greatest resistance. They would have formed defense bodies to protect themselves and their interests by force of arms. 1 have no doubt they will do so when things begin to happen there as they did in Russia in 1917. Not that they will succeed, however. But as I say, the Revolution in Russia did not produce any organized and effective bourgeois resistance. for the simple reason that there was no real bourgeoisie or capitalist class in that country. Military attempts there were indeed, such as that of the Tsarist General Kornilov to attack Petrograd with Cossacks brought from the front, but so harmless was that adventure that Kornilov's army melted away even before he could reach the capital. His men went over to the revolutionary garrison of Petrograd almost without firing a gun.
The point is that when the masses are with the Revolution, there can be no thought of successful resistance by any enemy, no chance of suppressing the Revolution. That was the situation in Russia in October,1917, when the Soviets took the power into their hands.
The Bolshevik plan was to gain entire and exclusive control of the government for their Party. It did not fit into their scheme to permit the people themselves to manage things, through their Soviet organizations. As long as the Soviets had the whole say the Bolsheviki could not achieve their purpose. It was therefore necessary either to abolish the Soviets or to gain control of them.
To abolish the Soviets was impossible. They represented the toiling masses; the Soviet idea had been a cherished dream of the Russian people for centuries. Even in the far past Russia had soviets of various kinds, and the entire village life was built on the soviet principle; that is, on the equal right and representation of all members alike. The ancient Russian mir, the public assembly to transact the business of the village or town, was one of the forms of the soviet idea.
The Bolsheviki knew that the revolutionary workers and peasants, as well as the soldiers (who were workers and peasants in uniform), would not stand for the abolition of their soviets. There remained the only alternative of getting control of them. Holding to the Lenin principle that the "end justifies the means," the Bolsheviki did not shrink from any methods whatever to discredit and eliminate the other revolutionary elements from the Soviets. They carried on a persistent campaign of venom and detraction for the purpose of deluding the masses and turning them against the other parties, particularly against the Left Socialists Revolutionists and the Anarchists. Systematically and by the most Jesuitic means they sought to become the sole power, so as to be able to carry out Lenin's scheme of "proletarian dictatorship."
By such tactics the Bolsheviki finally succeeded in organizing a Soviet of People's Commissars, which in reality became the new government. All its members were Bolsheviki, with two minor exceptions: the Commissariats of justice and of Agriculture were headed by Left Socialists Revolutionists. Before long these were also eliminated and replaced by Bolsheviki. The Soviet of People's Commissars was the political machine of the Bolshevik Party, which was now rechristened into the Communist Party of Russia.
What this Communist Party stood for, what its objects and purposes were, we already know. It openly avowed its determination to secure exclusive Bolshevik domination under the label of the "dictatorship of the proletariat."
This was fatal to the Revolution and its great aim of a deep social and economic reconstruction, as the subsequent history of Russia has proven. Why?
* From the Russian word bolshe, meaning "more" or majority; menshe signifying less"
1 July 16, new style.
2 November 7, new style.
3 In the South of Russia (the Ukraine) the bourgeoisie did offer some resistance, but only during the rule of the Hetmen Skoropadsky and Petlura, aided by the Allied armies. As soon as foreign aid was withdrawn, the Ukrainian bourgeoisie also became helpless.
4 Real counter-revolution began much later, when Bolshevik terror and dictatorship were in full sway, which alienated the masses and resulted in insurrections.