Lenin’s greatest contribution to history was his leading role in the Russian Revolution of 1917, when workers entered the stage of history, writes John Westmoreland in the second of his three-part series
In every great historical moment, politically conscious people act. Whether the actions are supported by the majority is not decided by voting, but in a struggle between the contending parties.
However, by studying actions we can deduce intent. Let’s deal with the charge that a democratic, i.e. parliamentary solution was available to Russia in 1917, and that Lenin chose a violent coup instead.
After Tsar Nicolas II was forced to abdicate on March 2 1917 by mass demonstrations, strikes and the mutiny of his troops in Petrograd, the role of government was assumed by the former deputies of the dissolved Duma. They were wealthy Liberals and formed a Provisional Government. Everyone who had opposed tsarism expected it to be replaced by parliamentary government. The left as well as the Liberals wanted this, including the Bolsheviks.
The various parties – the largest of these were the Social Revolutionaries (SRs, made up of peasants), the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks – held to their different programmes, and expected elections to decide the balance of power. The Liberals, the party of wealth and property, would inevitably lose.
The deputies in the Provisional Government wanted absolute power. But real organisational power was in the hands of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies.
By the time Lenin returned to Russia on 3rd April the dual power impasse of the Provisional Government and the Soviet was stifling the revolution. No promise of elections from the Provisional Government, and no offer of the radical changes demanded by the Soviet.
The February Revolution was not just to remove the tsar. Petrograd was starving. The peasants were taking over the landlords’ estates, and the soldiers – peasants in uniform – wanted an end to the war. If the war had continued the mutinous battalions would have faced execution or a return to a hopeless frontline.
Lenin’s return to Petrograd
On his return Lenin immediately grasped the situation and he offered a solution. Not a solution that would lead to a Leninist/ Bolshevik dictatorship please note. Lenin made a demand that at once challenged the intentions of the Provisional Government and united the factions within the Soviet.
“Bread, Peace, Land. All power to the Soviets,” Lenin’s famous slogan, broke the impasse.
So much snappier than, “Let’s unite the workers and peasants for social justice and be anti-imperialist at the same time!”
It was not, at least when Lenin first pronounced it, supported by the Bolsheviks. Lenin understood that if a radical parliament with the Liberals was nothing but a pipe dream, united action by the forces of the Soviet must be mobilised.
Lenin was not interested in vacuous inner-party solutions, but in changing the political terrain in favour of the workers. The Bolsheviks on the Central Committee thought Lenin was mad to talk about further revolution when Russia had to pass through a period of capitalist development before it could reach the Communist ‘stage’. Lenin, in the heat of that revolutionary moment had, however, come to the share the view of Trotsky that either the revolution would continue, or a period of frightful reaction would destroy them.
Petrograd’s working class did not wait for the result of a theoretical debate in the Bolshevik party. Within days workers from the radical Vyborg distract were carrying banners with Lenin’s words on them.
Between April and the revolution in October that created the greatest workers’ democracy that has ever existed, the correctness of Lenin’s intervention was seen at every turn.
The central issue that would decide everything was the ongoing war. The propertied classes, and their opportunist supporters, wanted a patriotic war. They wanted nationalist power. They wanted the Russian Empire. They wanted a standing army commanded by the tsar’s generals. And because of this they wanted to crush the Soviet.
One deputy of the Provisional Government, Shulgin, spoke of how he hated the upstart peasants who glowered at him – the Soviet was also in the Tauride Palace – and how he had to suppress his feelings and pretend to love the revolution.
“Machine guns! That’s what I wanted. I felt that only the tongues of machine guns could talk to the mob, and only machine guns and lead could drive back into his lair this frightful beast. This beast was no other than His Majesty the Russian people.” (Tony Cliff, All Power to the Soviets, page91).
Yes, a blood-soaked dictatorship was being dreamed up, but contrary to the claims of some historians, not by Lenin!
On April 20, two days after the Foreign Minister, Miliukin, had contacted the Allies and promised “war to the end”, armed demonstrations against the war broke out in Petrograd.
On June 18 the government launched a fresh offensive in Galicia, against the backdrop of a dramatic upswing in Soviet activity. The regiments in the capital were now openly pro-Bolshevik.
In July the arrest of Bolshevik leaders was ordered, and a dead or alive warrant issued for Lenin.
The government place the reactionary General Kornilov in charge of the armed forces and on August 27 he marched towards Petrograd. However, to the alarm of the deputies in the government, Kornilov not only wanted to crush the Soviet and “hang them all”, he also wanted an end to the Provisional Government, and impose martial law.
Lenin, hiding out in Finland, responded brilliantly to the threat of Kornilov. He urged the Bolshevik troop to defend Petrograd and to rest their guns on the shoulders of Kerensky, the new and would-be populist leader of the Provisional Government.
Kornilov was defeated, Petrograd saved – and the Provisional Government crushingly exposed.
And this brief history explains why the Bolsheviks took power in October, not as a party, but as the leaders of Soviet forces in their Military Revolutionary Committee, their factory committees and across Russia.
What was the ‘democratic alternative’ to taking power? Keeping the Provisional Government would simply mean another Kornilov, certainly not a democracy more meaningful than the Soviets already had. The Provisional Government and Lenin knew the situation was not about democracy at all. It was about power and whether the working class would be returned to a subject status, or whether they would build a better world.
Millions of people across Russia sweeping away the old order of autocracy and oppression cannot in any sense be described as anti-democratic.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.