THE 95TH anniversary of the Russian Revolution has largely gone unmentioned in both the mainstream and alternative media in the United States.
People on the right have long claimed that the revolution was an undemocratic coup that demonstrates that revolutions lead to tyranny and that there is no alternative to the kind of society that we live in today.
But in the more than twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, similar arguments have increasingly been accepted by many on the left, most of whom assume that the failed Soviet state embodied the legacy of the 1917 Revolution. Some conclude that the best we can hope for are mild reforms of the existing system, others that we must find a way to change society that does not require taking state power.
Yet far from being undemocratic, the Russian Revolution represented the first time in history that working people took control of the county in which they lived. The revolution thus demonstrated the potential for a very different and far more democratic kind of society. The tragedy was that this potential was never fully realized, because within a few years the revolution had, effectively, been defeated. The subsequent history of the Soviet Union represented not the continuation of the revolution, but the negation of everything it had stood for.
There were actually two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The first occurred in February (March by the modern calendar) as a result of Russia’s disastrous participation in the First World War and the virtual collapse of the Russian economy. The old Tsarist regime was swept away by a vast uprising of workers, peasants, and soldiers, which began on International Women’s Day and was led by women textile workers in Petrograd.
“The working women,” wrote a witness, “driven to desperation by starvation and war, came along like a hurricane that destroys everything in its path with the violence of an elemental force.”
But while the old regime was gone, the old class structure was not. This was reflected in the Provisional Government set up after the Tsar’s fall. Its aim was to move toward the kind of toothless constitutional democracy that exists in countries like the United States today. The masses could participate in electoral rituals every few years, but the real power would remain in the hands of the tiny minority that controlled the country’s wealth.
For several months there was an uneasy balance of power. In the countryside, where the majority of Russia’s population was concentrated, impoverished peasants began seizing the estates of the landowners and dividing them into individual plots. In the cities, the struggle was between the new classes that had emerged as a result of Russia’s attempt to drag itself into the twentieth century by rapid industrialization: on one side the employers, making huge fortunes from the massive new manufacturing plants, on the other a small but extremely powerful working class which had been created in those same plants.
In 1905, the workers had challenged the old order with a series of mass strikes, but they faced a peasant army still loyal to the Tsar. In the years following the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, the Russian state resorted to new levels of repression. But the workers learned from this experience that they were able to manage the day-to-day running of society better than their rulers.
In Petrograd in 1905, they had organized their own workers’ council or “soviet” made up of delegates elected from workplaces all over the city. The soviet initially concerned itself with economic issues, but it soon began organizing political strikes in defense of mutineering sailors who were threatened with execution. The twenty-six-year-old Leon Trotsky, elected head of the Petrograd soviet in 1905, gave the following description of its activities:
The Soviet is in reality an embryo of a revolutionary government. It organizes street patrols to secure the safety of the citizens.... It takes over ... the post office, the telegraph and the railroads.... It made an effort to introduce the eight-hour day.... The first wave of the next revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country.
Following the February 1917 revolution, soviets sprang up all around Russia. In the following months a situation of “dual power” developed between the soviets and the provincial government. Either the privileged classes would dominate the old state machine and the soviets would eventually be crushed, or the soviets would form the foundation of a new society that would destroy the old state apparatus and sweep away the old ruling class.
The breaking point came in October. The Provisional Government had become totally discredited in the eyes of the vast majority. It was incapable of giving the workers and peasants what they wanted: peace, bread, and land. These were the circumstances that allowed the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky to lead a second revolution that ousted the old ruling class.
The soviets became the basis for a new revolutionary government, which represented a much more democratic system than any that had been seen before or any that exists today. “No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented,” wrote the American journalist John Reed, who witnessed the soviets in action. “And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity.”
The delegates to the soviets were subject to recall by the voters and had to explain themselves regularly at workers’ mass meetings. The mass of the population was involved in the decision-making process in a way that has never been possible in capitalist societies.
By the time the Bolsheviks came to form the first soviet government, around one worker in every ten was a member of the party. Given the extent of support for the Bolsheviks, it should be no surprise that the old regime collapsed like a house of cards. Martov, a leading member of the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks’ main political opponents on the left, wrote at the time: “Understand, please, that what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat—almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.”
The revolution was initiated, led and completed by the organized working class, drawing the peasant masses behind it. Without the support of the millions of peasants in the army, the workers would have been crushed, as they had been in 1905. Because the workers’ insurrection allowed them to seize and hold the land, the peasants accepted the new soviet power and the rule of the Bolsheviks, the majority party in the soviets.
For the first time in history, workers held state power in a country, and it seemed as if a new era of human history was beginning. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci declared at the time: “The Russian revolution is the triumph of freedom. . .creating for itself one by one the organs that the new social life demands.”
On assuming power, the Bolsheviks immediately legalized the peasants’ seizure of land in the countryside and announced workers’ control of the factories. To make clear that the decrees were not merely the empty promises of a self-serving elite, they announced that government officials would be paid the average wage of a skilled industrial worker.
The new government abolished the death penalty. It announced the separation of state and education from the church and instituted full freedom of religion, ending the legalized oppression of Jews that had existed for centuries. Education was made free for all and a massive literacy campaign was initiated. The countries of the old Russian Empire were granted the right to self-determination. All the old legislation that had served to oppress women was swept away. Equal pay was established by law. Marriages could be dissolved at the request of either partner. Illegitimate children were given equal rights with the children of married parents. All legal restrictions on abortion were removed. The state provided welfare services for mothers and their children, setting up maternity homes and free nurseries. Most importantly, Women’s Departments were set up in all areas of the country with the aim of bringing women together to play an active role in changing society. According to the British writer Colin Wilson, “Peasant women sang songs about how they would divorce their husband if he beat them.”
Homosexuality ceased to be a crime and all references to sex practices were removed from the criminal code. The director of the Moscow Institute for Sexual Hygiene, Dr. Grigory Batkis, described the new approach:
Soviet legislation. . .declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against public morality, Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called “natural” intercourse.
The vibrancy of the new society was reflected in a huge surge of activity in the cultural field. There was a flowering of artistic endeavor in the visual arts, drama, filmmaking, and literature. Victor Serge, a French anarcho-syndicalist who joined the Bolshevik Party shortly after the revolution, described these aspects of the revolution in his book Year One of the Russian Revolution:
Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere. Innumerable fresh initiatives laid open the teaching of unheard-of, totally unexplored domains of learning. In this period too, the museums were enriched by the confiscation of private collections: extraordinary honesty and care characterized this expropriation of artistic riches. Not one work of any significance was lost.
The steps taken in the first few months and years of the revolution were impressive. Yet, as Marx famously pointed out, people do not make history in circumstances of their own choosing. The Russia of 1917 was not the kind of place in which earlier socialists had expected the workers to seize power. They had anticipated revolution in the economically advanced countries of Western Europe and North America, where there was high productivity, sophisticated technology, and a skilled workforce.
By contrast, Russia was a country that had barely begun the task of dragging itself out of the middle ages. To make matters worse, the war had shattered much of the country’s economy, leaving railways, communications, and industry in shambles. By the summer of 1918 there was a cholera epidemic in Petrograd and famine was widespread. At the same time, counterrevolutionary elements began resorting to violence. An assassination attempt on Lenin left him seriously injured.
Both Lenin and Trotsky were clear that without international support the revolution could not survive in Russia, where the working class constituted less than two percent of the total population. The establishment of socialist republics in advanced countries like Germany and France was essential. These could send tractors and machinery to help Russia industrialize rapidly. The alternative would be deeper crisis, further shortages, and ultimately the end of peasant support for the Soviet state. Lenin put matters starkly in March 1919: “The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish.”
Belief in the possibility of international revolution was not a mere pipe dream. Millions of workers around the world were inspired by the courage and vision of the Bolsheviks. A leading British militant later wrote about the impact of the events in Russia:
In November 1917, when news of the Russian Revolution came through, it sent a thrill of excitement through every revolutionary worker.. . . I pounced on everything that dealt with the Russian Revolution, and the knowledge that workers like me and all those around me had won power, had defeated the boss class, kept me in a growing state of enthusiasm.
In Germany and Austria the monarchy collapsed and workers’, soldiers,’ and sailors’ councils were set up. In Hungary, Bavaria, Finland, and Latvia, Soviet governments briefly came to power. The Turkish Sultan was overthrown. There was a wave of factory occupations in Italy. The national liberation movement in Ireland fought the British Army to a standstill, and in Britain itself there was a huge upsurge of working class militancy, with workers’ councils set up briefly in Glasgow. In North America there were general strikes in Seattle and Winnipeg. But none of these movements were well enough organized to win power for the working class. Nowhere outside of Russia had a disciplined, revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks, been built in advance.
The defeat of this first wave of revolutionary activity following the Russian Revolution did not mean that capitalism was out of danger. Communist parties dedicated to the revolutionary seizure of power were established around the world, and in 1919 the Bolsheviks established the Third (Communist) International (Comintern) to unite them. The Comintern called for an anti-imperialist alliance of national and colonial liberation movements with Soviet Russia and working class movements fighting capitalism.
But the Bolsheviks could not simply wait for revolution elsewhere. In 1918, twenty-two foreign armies from countries such as the United States, Britain, and France, invaded Russia and equipped the White Armies of the deposed ruling class. The Soviet government was forced to throw its resources into the defense of the workers’ republic.
The revolutionary Red Army, commanded by Trotsky, eventually defeated the forces of counterrevolution, but only at a huge cost in human and material terms. By May 1919, Russian industry was reduced to 10 percent of its normal fuel supply. Production of manufactured goods had fallen to 13 percent of the already low 1913 level. Seventy-nine percent of the railway system was out of action. Many basic commodities were unattainable.
The number of workers in the towns fell from 3 million to 1.25 million. Thousands of the most dedicated working class militants died in the civil war. The historian E.H. Carr reports that food shortages led to a “mass flight of industrial workers from the towns and reversion to the status and occupation of peasants.” By 1921, Petrograd had lost 57.5 percent of its total population and Moscow had lost 44.5 percent.
Every gain of the revolution was threatened by the scarcity of resources. The historian Kevin Murphy has shown that in some factories workers retained considerable control over production until as late as 1927, winning regular wage increases. But in others, workers’ power came to be no more than an abstract slogan, while the soviets became little more than talking shops. From 1919 there were no elections to the Moscow soviet for more than eighteen months.
In the dire conditions of the civil war and its aftermath, the Bolsheviks felt compelled to outlaw political parties that were critics of the revolution, some of which had openly sided with the counterrevolution. This erosion of democracy was a direct result of the intervention by the Western capitalist powers. Counterrevolutionary forces had been unable to crush the workers’ state from outside, but they had created the conditions for decay from within, manifested in serious and sometimes violent tensions between the working class and the peasantry.
By the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, the Bolshevik Party was very different from the workers’ organization it had been in 1917. As the democratic soviets withered, the party fell under the control of a bureaucracy of full-time officials and opportunists. By 1922, only one member in forty had been in the party in October 1917. The head of this growing bureaucracy was Joseph Stalin, who had played an inconsequential role in the 1917 Revolution, but who had maneuvered himself into the position of general secretary of the party. In the years after Lenin’s death, Stalin defeated all his rivals until, by 1928, he reigned supreme.
The new party/state bureaucracy was no longer interested in world revolution. Instead, the bureaucrats’ chief concern was with the interests of the Soviet state, and of themselves as its rulers. In line with this, Stalin and his supporters put forward the doctrine of “socialism in one country.” The task of the Communist parties in other countries was not to prepare for revolution, but to further the interests of the Russian state. The Comintern was transformed into an instrument of Stalin’s foreign policy and the abandonment of world revolution became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The last vestiges of the revolution were wiped out as the country was industrialized on the backs of the working class and the peasantry. Russia was converted into one huge labor camp and the remaining members of the Bolshevik “old guard” were liquidated. This Stalinist counterrevolution turned Russia into a state capitalist country in which the economy was state owned, but the state was controlled by a new ruling class—which exploited its workers in the same way as private employers in other parts of the world.
The degeneration of the Russian Revolution was by no means inevitable. If the revolution had spread from Russia to the advanced industrial countries after 1917, then the horrors of Stalin’s rule could have been avoided and workers could have held on to power.
Even after the first revolutionary wave had receded, there was still an alternative. Trotsky and the Left Opposition in Russia argued that the Bolsheviks should continue to encourage revolutions elsewhere. Instead, the Left Opposition was crushed, its members expelled from the party and imprisoned or exiled. Nevertheless, Trotsky and his followers kept the cause of revolutionary socialism alive. They are a reminder that the path followed by Stalin was the complete opposite of the one advocated by Marx and Lenin.
Despite the eventual defeat of the Russian Revolution, the achievements of the Bolsheviks should not been forgotten. We should celebrate the revolution, but more importantly draw on its many lessons in order to strengthen our struggles today against a capitalist system that is proving less and less capable of meeting even the most basic needs.