Undoing the rigid stereotypes of the Russian Revolution

The Bolsheviks Come to Power:

The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd

“Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” —Leon Trotsky1 

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, the myth aptly described by Daniel Singer that revolutions are “not only bloody and useless, but . . . gray, dreary, [and] regimented” persists.2 Yet, for a new generation rediscovering the ideas and traditions of socialism, The Bolsheviks Come to Power by Alexander Rabinowitch offers an essential correction to this narrative, bringing all the excitement and complexity of one of the most important chapters in the struggle for socialism into full, living color. Originally published in 1976, this new edition of what has (deservedly) become a classic history of the October Revolution features a new preface by the author. 

Here, Rabinowitch reflects on the Cold War context in which the book was written and how his own research led him to reject the predominant notion—shared by Stalinist and capitalist ideologues alike—that the Russian Revolution was primarily the product of a top-down organization and a conspiratorial coup orchestrated by a tightly-knit minority with little—if any—involvement by the vast majority of Russian society. Rather, Rabinowitch argues, although the Bolsheviks “were doubtless more unified than any of their major rivals for power . . . nonetheless, my research suggests that the relative flexibility of the party, as well as its responsiveness to the prevailing mass mood, had at least as much to do with the ultimate Bolshevik victory as did revolutionary discipline, organizational unity, or obedience to Lenin.”

That his analysis is not more widely known speaks not only to the tendency to conflate the victory of the world’s first workers’ government with the horrors that came after, but to the ways in which this history remains dangerous from the perspective of the ruling elites, even one hundred years on. While Rabinowitch attempts a non-partisan analysis, his aim to recover the legacy of the Russian Revolution as a “revolution from below” makes the book an essential contribution for understanding how revolutions are won. The book demonstrates how both organization and mass participation critically shaped the course of events, with each factor mutually reinforcing the other amidst rapidly changing circumstances. 

The book focuses on the activities of the Bolshevik Party in Petrograd during the four months leading up to the October insurrection. The narrative begins like a moving train, hurling us into the chaotic start of the July uprising by impatient soldiers and radicalized workers. By this point, Russia was already well entrenched in World War I, provoking immense casualties on the frontlines, as well as an economic crisis and shortages of fuel and food on the home front. The February Revolution had toppled centuries of tsarist rule and created a situation of dual power between the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants Deputies and the Provisional Government, which included representatives of the bourgeoisie and large landowning classes. 

In explaining his choice to zero in on this particular period, Rabinowitch contends that, despite the plethora of historical studies of the Russian Revolution, there had been a lack of sufficient attention paid to developments that were critical to the Bolsheviks’ ability to seize power. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that its rich, highly detailed narrative account puts the reader in the thick of events and debates, using the observations of contemporary newspapers, rare documents, and memoirs to illuminate the process by which the party was able to win mass appeal among multiple competitors for power. Refuting the prevailing narrative that events were painstakingly managed from above, Rabinowitch depicts the striking complexity and volatility of the period, including shifts around the mass mood, the attitude of the Provisional Government, competing factions of the Left, and the Bolsheviks themselves. 

At all stages of these four months, there were major shifts and debates both within and outside the Bolshevik Party regarding perspectives, strategies, and tactics appropriate to the prevailing situation. Thus, the book illustrates how the broader population of workers and peasants as well as soldiers (many of whom were peasants by origin) came gradually to support the program of the Bolsheviks as divisions deepened between the masses and the Menshevik/Socialist Revolutionary (SR)-dominated Soviets that favored collaboration with the Provisional Government despite its commitment to Russian involvement in an increasingly unpopular war. For instance, in the chapter, “The Ineffectiveness of Repression,” Rabinowitch explains how the Bolsheviks actually grew in popularity, despite the Provisional Government’s massive campaign of repression following the July uprising, a period that was “subsequently remembered by many revolutionary veterans as perhaps the roughest in the history of the party.”

This crackdown—which often ensnared not only Bolsheviks, but other members of the Left—included slandering the Bolsheviks as German agents, banning the radical press, emboldening elements of the Far Right to incite pogroms against Jews and workers, and imprisoning top party leaders as well as ordinary citizens, “often merely for a loose word.” Nevertheless, 

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that those who facilely wrote off Bolshevism as a potent political force in the mid-summer of 1917 failed completely to take account of the basic concerns and great potential power of the Petrograd masses, and of the enormous attraction that a revolutionary program like that of the Bolsheviks held for them. 

Despite the Provisional Government’s threats and posturing, the significant political and social crisis had produced divisions within the government and the ruling class such that “almost none of the major repressive measures adopted by the cabinet during this period either was fully implemented or successfully achieved its objectives.” Rather, the new regime was forced to play a balancing act in a period where masses of people had come into political activity for the first time, attempting to control them without losing their legitimacy to rule. At several key junctures, these efforts backfired, instead casting the Bolsheviks as symbols of resistance to counterrevolutionary efforts and winning them an even wider hearing. As a Russian newspaper observed following significant electoral gains for the Bolsheviks in the Duma, “The repression of the extreme left served only to increase its popularity among the masses . . . The Bolshevik press was closed, the party’s agitation was constrained—but the enforced silence was the most eloquent propaganda.” 

Another myth the book unmasks comes from its exploration of the inner workings, structure, and actions of the Bolshevik Party. Far from typical portrayals of an authoritarian organization that was intolerant toward dissent, Rabinowitch demonstrates that the locally elected Bolshevik leaders enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy and were “relatively free to tailor their tactics and appeals to suit local conditions.” He notes further that, regardless of whether the more moderate or radical wings of the party composed the majority on a particular question, “leaders who differed with the majority were at liberty to fight for their views, and not infrequently Lenin was the loser in those struggles.”

Local party membership did not always share and, in some cases, overtly flouted directives from the Bolshevik Central Committee, while significant and sometimes fierce debates over major theoretical, tactical, and strategic questions raged within the party all the way up until the ultimate seizure of power. For example, in the chapter “Lenin’s Campaign for an Insurrection,” Rabinowitch underscores how, for nearly a month, the Central Committee so strongly opposed Lenin’s insistence that the timing was ripe for an insurrection that they sought to burn one of his letters and suppress his publications in the party’s newspaper. Nevertheless, Lenin’s letters managed to reach members of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee, provoking a wider debate within the party and ultimately a major shift in favor of making insurrection the order of the day. Thus, Rabinowitch makes clear that, where Lenin did play a decisive role, his victories were won through the party’s democratic structures and culture of open assessment and debate.

In addition, Rabinowitch argues that the Bolsheviks’ position as a mass party rooted in Petrograd’s factories, the soviets, and the army allowed them to both assess and influence the balance of forces in favor of workers and the Left. In the preceding years, the party had transformed from a relatively small organization—often forced underground in order to carry out political activities and evade tsarist repression—into a mass party that carried influence far beyond its official membership. Between February and June of 1917, party membership in Petrograd alone grew from 2,000 to 32,000, while 2,000 soldiers joined the Bolshevik Military Organization; and many more workers and soldiers were influenced by the party, and its radical newspapers and affiliated organizations. This emergent growth “flooded [the party’s] ranks with militants who knew next to nothing about Marxism and who were united by little more than overwhelming impatience for immediate revolutionary action.”

While integrating these newer currents posed challenges, the overall embeddedness of the party throughout Russian society contributed to their flexibility and insight around key questions: (1) Would the party be able to rely on soldiers at the front to oppose the continuation of the bloody war, or would they side with the government and crush the workers if an insurrection were to occur? (2) Were the workers sufficiently armed, prepared, and confident to effect a seizure of power or would they be risking a repeat of the July repression or worse—provoking a bloodbath? (3) Most importantly, would the Bolsheviks have enough support within the provinces, beyond the major cities, to take power? (4) Should the Bolshevik Party, having achieved a majority in the soviets, seize power in its own name or through the auspices of the soviets? 

As Rabinowitch notes, the party’s ability to draw sufficiently correct conclusions despite these challenges reflected “the degree to which the Bolsheviks were sensitive to, and, in their overall behavior, very much influenced by, the prevailing mass mood.” Thus, they were operating from a position of knowledge based on the party’s own mass character. By incorporating different levels of experience, leadership, and militancy around a consistently revolutionary program, the party was able to take advantage of more favorable conditions, to win mass support, and, in the final instance, to take decisive action. 

Although Rabinowitch does not explicitly draw out specific lessons of this period, the fact that he furnishes us with such a rich account of the debates and challenges that the Bolsheviks faced—as well as analysis of factors that were critical to the revolution’s success—makes the book an invaluable resource for drawing such lessons. Below are a few key examples:

The Kornilov affair—fighting the Right without dissolving the Left

Rabinowitch depicts the reciprocal, dynamic relationship between the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the self-activity of the Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants on the other, both of which played a crucial role in warding off potential setbacks to the revolution. In one of the book’s most exciting chapters, “The Bolsheviks and Kornilov’s Defeat,” Rabinowitch describes how the party, the soviets, and the Russian masses successfully beat back an attempted right-wing coup, which was led by the Russian army general Lavr Kornilov and backed by sections of the ruling class eager to dispense with democracy and roll back the gains of the February Revolution once the Provisional Government proved incapable of thwarting the ascendant Left.

Here, the Bolsheviks—who had been temporarily driven underground as a result of the abortive July demonstrations—were able to distinguish themselves by uniting with others and playing a significant role in the fight against Kornilov, while also maintaining their independence from the outlook of the moderate socialists and making clear their criticisms of the Provisional Government. 

At the same time, these defensive efforts were not launched exclusively in response to directives from the Bolsheviks or the soviets; in fact, thousands of ordinary people in labor organizations, the army, and beyond independently organized themselves to take up the fight. Rabinowitch describes these remarkable episodes in terms that are nothing short of inspiring. Emergency ad hoc revolutionary committees “sprang up like mushrooms after a late summer rain” all across the country, mobilizing people within hours to maintain services and provide weapons, and citizens in the factory districts lined up en masse to join the workers’ fighting detachments, known as “Red Guards.” Meanwhile, rail and telegraph workers cut off Kornilov’s ability to communicate with other military commanders and smashed rail lines to sabotage his descent on the capital. As Rabinowitch observes, “It would be difficult to find, in recent history, a more powerful, effective display of largely spontaneous and unified mass political action.”

Contrary to the idea that the masses were dupes who would, as one Kornilov lackey insisted, “submit to any cracking of the whip,” it was no government leader or singular group who came to stop Kornilov’s coup but the masses themselves, who defeated the counterrevolution, making this victory over the Right not only possible, but laying the foundation for the Left to go on the offensive. 

Rather than the movement dissolving after a single clash with the Right, Russian society emerged from the battle “more widely saturated than ever before with competing grass roots political organizations,” and with greater support for the Bolsheviks, whose program now more closely aligned with the aspirations of the majority of society. In this way, the book demonstrates the importance of both organization and mass participation to the movement’s success at not only fending off what might have been a decisive counterrevolutionary blow, but building the confidence of masses of people to act on their own behalf while also building the size, coordination, and fighting capacity of the Left. By the time the October Revolution broke out, the Provisional Government lacked the necessary forces to fight on its own behalf. 

The decisive role of the party 

Throughout the book, Rabinowitch consistently grounds his study of the party within the broader context of the shifting international terrain, as well as changing conditions in the Russian economy and society. While stressing the enormous impact of the party’s most critical strategic decisions, Rabinowitch maintains an eye to the objective material conditions within which the Bolsheviks operated and how these factors shaped the options available to the Bolsheviks and their adversaries. At times, these dynamics drove certain sections of the Left toward greater collaboration and, at others, produced splits within the Provisional Government, the ruling class, and the right and left wings of the Mensheviks and SRs. He is careful to delineate between moments when the assumptions of each of the dominant political forces proved correct and when their calculations proved inaccurate. 

For example, in several chapters, and at various points in the conflict, the book weighs the legitimacy of concerns raised by Bolsheviks who opposed an immediate insurrection against the validity of Lenin’s perspectives, many of which were developed while in hiding abroad. For these reasons, Rabinowitch disputes the notion that the Bolshevik’s victory was inevitable, even when the balance of forces had shifted in their favor. Nevertheless, the book’s overarching conclusions point to the decisive importance of such an organization in making it possible for revolutionary forces to take advantage of every opening within this unstable, often explosive context, to sustain their project through the high and low points of mass struggle, and to provide an alternative to Russia’s continued participation in the war and subjugation to the interests of the propertied classes. 

Revolutions are made by the masses

Rabinowitch corroborates the “necessarily crucial significance” of winning over the army to the Bolshevik’s cause, but it would be a mistake to conclude that their victory over the Provisional Government was achieved exclusively through a clash of arms. The October insurrection would not have been possible but for the mass support for a revolutionary program. Through his hour-by-hour breakdown of the October insurrection, Rabinowitch provides ample evidence that both soldiers and workers, including those who were not Bolsheviks, opted to join the uprising, exerting their considerable social power to ensure the transfer of power to the soviets. In one passage, the book describes how a detachment of soldiers made the decision to rally behind the Military Revolutionary Committee (the organization directing the insurrection) simply by taking a vote; in another, the Committee secured control of the capital’s vital communications facilities “without a shot fired, despite the fact that among the telegraph office’s three thousand employees there was not a single Bolshevik.” 

These, along with many other examples, provide a stunning testament to the support the Bolsheviks carried well beyond their numbers. By the eve of the national Congress of Soviets, where a majority of soviet delegates from across the country voted to ratify the transfer of power to the soviets, the main battle—as much ideologically as militarily determined—had, by and large, already been won. In this way, The Bolsheviks Come to Power provides a forceful reminder that social revolutions are not made through coups by a minority, nor by elected representatives (as we are often led to believe); they are made by masses of people acting on their own behalf. This sentiment is best expressed in the book by a quote from Lenin: 

[W]ith all my might I urge comrades to realize that everything now hangs by a thread; that we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by conferences or congresses (even congresses of soviets), but exclusively by peoples, by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people.

Upon its original publication, The Bolsheviks Come to Power was a breath of fresh air to those who had always maintained that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not usurpers, and that the party was not the bureaucratic monolith presented in both Stalinist and Cold-War Western accounts. Sadly, with the exception of a few mainstream histories that counter this caricature (several of which are helpfully enumerated in the book’s new preface), the anti-Bolshevik view of the Russian Revolution remains the dominant one, along with its consequent pessimism about the possibility—if not the necessity—of revolution today. Hence, The Bolsheviks Come to Power remains as important as ever for anyone interested in the Russian Revolution, and in changing the world. In an era where so much of the Left has given up on the working class and the necessity of revolutionary organization, Rabinowitch’s demystification of the revolution and of the Bolsheviks themselves is a vital reminder of what is possible. He concludes: 

The phenomenal Bolshevik success can be attributed in no small measure to the nature of the party in 1917. Here I have in mind neither Lenin’s bold and determined leadership, the immense historical significance of which cannot be denied, nor the Bolsheviks’ proverbial, though vastly exaggerated, organizational unity and discipline. Rather, I would emphasize the party’s internally, relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralized structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character—in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model.

  1. Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), xvi.
  2. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (Cambridge: South End Press, 2002), 15.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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