The October revolution was an expression of the democratic will of millions of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants writes Neil Faulkner
Right-wing historians often describe the October Insurrection as a Bolshevik ‘coup’ made possible by the ‘anarchy’ into which Russia had fallen by autumn 1917. The misunderstanding is profound.
Their basic error is to view history from above, not below. That which looks to them like ‘anarchy’ was, in fact, the leaching away of state authority and the rise of new organs of popular power.
That which they describe as a ‘coup’ was, in fact, an expression of the democratic will of millions of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants.
The Tsarist monarchy had commanded an army of millions. Yet it was overthrown in the February Revolution. The Provisional Government had inherited that army of millions. Yet it was swept away by the October Insurrection. Historical events of this this magnitude are not brought about by mere ‘coups’.
The very success of the October Insurrection hides its true character. The revolution was so ripe – the social crisis so deep, the authority of the government so hollowed out, the masses so well-prepared for decisive action – that a few tens of thousands were sufficient to execute the popular will.
On the day of the insurrection, 25 October 1917, the whole energy of Russia’s mighty conflagration became concentrated in the hands of perhaps 25,000 armed men – workers, soldiers, and sailors. They were commanded by Leon Trotsky, a triumvirate of senior military organisers, and the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet.
There was little for anyone else to do. Most workers remained at home, most soldiers in their barracks. They had debated, voted, and given their leaders a mandate. Now it was simply a matter of executing the formal transfer of power from one class to another.
There was no looting or rioting. Theatres, cinemas, and shops remained open. Casualties were minimal, far fewer than in either the February or July Days.
The climax was anti-climax. The Winter Palace, the seat of government, was held by a motley collection of Tsarist officers, Cossacks, war veterans, and a volunteer ‘Women’s Battalion’. This was the sum total of social forces prepared to fight for Kerensky.
Threatened from the River Neva by the guns of the battleship Aurora, and unable to prevent armed workers and sailors infiltrating the palace’s vast labyrinth of entrances and passageways, the defence crumbled amid frantic scuffles. It would all look far more impressive in Eisenstein’s 1928 movie.
On the evening of 25 October, Trotsky reported to the Petrograd Soviet that ‘the Provisional Government has ceased to exist’. Lenin emerged from hiding to announce ‘a new era in the history of Russia’.
‘We have the strength of a mass organisation which will triumph over everything and bring the proletariat to world revolution,’ he continued. ‘In Russia, we must proceed at once to the construction of a proletarian socialist state. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!’
The radicalism of the new government was without historic precedent. A decree on land transferred the property of the landlords to millions of peasants. A decree on industry gave the workers control of the factories. A decree on self-determination gave the oppressed nations of the Russian Empire the right to independence.
The mansions of the rich were taken over to house the poor. Equal access to education and health care became the right of every citizen. The old marriage and divorce laws were swept away, equality between the sexes became obligatory, and adultery, homosexuality, and abortion ceased to be crimes.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Most previous revolutions, even in their most radical phases, had remained under bourgeois control. The major exception, the Paris Commune of 1871, had been restricted to one city and lasted only two months. Now, for the first time in human history, the working class had taken power in a modern nation-state.
The entire preceding eight months of the revolution had been the necessary preparation for this. The ebbs and flows of the struggle – the rhythms of the revolution – had been an essential process of learning for the masses, of shedding illusions, of gaining in confidence, of moving to the left through the hard knocks of political experience.
The dual power – the mechanics of the revolution – had given organisational expression to the escalating confrontation of social forces, the Provisional Government becoming the rallying point for all the forces of reaction, the soviets the democratic expression of the growing consciousness of the masses.
The Bolsheviks – the party of the revolution – had provided the vital network of embedded rank-and-file activists able to give direction to the struggle at every level.
The relationship between the masses, the soviets, and the party was like that between the steam, the box, and the piston of an engine. It was the energy of masses (the steam) that powered the revolution, but it was the soviets (the box) that concentrated that energy, and the party (the piston) that directed its force.
But the dizzy triumph of Red October was immediately threatened by economic collapse, peasant resistance, national disintegration, and military-imperial dismemberment.
Of Russia’s 150 million people, only about 3.5 million were industrial workers. Most Russians were peasants, and most of the 12 million soldiers mobilised during the war were conscripted from the villages.
The class division between officers and men in the Tsarist army mirrored the class division between landlords and peasants in the countryside. The peasant-soldiers had supported the revolution because they hated their officers, were sick of the war, and wanted the land. They supported the Bolsheviks thereafter because they gave them the land.
But the cities were starving, and the collapse of industry meant that the workers had little to exchange with the peasants for food. The bread ration in Petrograd fell from 300gms in October, to 150 in January, to just 50 in February.
The crisis was compounded by German aggression. The Germans refused to make peace unless the Bolsheviks ceded large parts of the grain- and coal-rich Ukraine. The German ultimatum split the Bolshevik leadership.
Some argued for ‘revolutionary war’ in defence of Russian territory. Lenin argued for acceptance of the ultimatum, since the Bolsheviks had no forces with which to fight. Trotsky argued for neither revolutionary war nor acceptance of the ultimatum, trusting instead to the imminent outbreak of revolution in Germany.
The German army invaded the Ukraine and faced virtually no resistance. Lenin’s position was therefore accepted. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk handed large parts of the Ukraine to German imperialism. Food shortages intensified. The revolution was slowly dying of hunger.
Soon there were other imperial predators to contend with: a Czech Legion on the Trans-Siberian Railway; British troops at Murmansk in the north and the Baku oilfields in the south; Japanese at Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. And these were encouraging and supplying counter-revolutionary ‘White’ armies. A ferocious civil war was beginning.
The Bolsheviks had always argued that socialism could be achieved only a world scale. They had hesitated about socialist revolution in Russia precisely because they had assumed the country’s economic backwardness precluded anything more than a bourgeois revolution to create a parliamentary democracy and facilitate capitalist development.
Now they were trapped by economic contradictions that were insoluble on a national scale. Unless it could harness the industrial power of Europe, the proletarian revolution would either be suffocated by the primeval poverty of the villages or drowned in blood by foreign and Tsarist armies.
‘The final victory of socialism in a single country is … impossible,’ Lenin told the Third Soviet Congress in January 1918. ‘Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding Soviet power is one of the contingents of the great world army.’ Two months later, he put the matter more starkly: ‘It is the absolute truth that without a German revolution, we are doomed.’
The revolution was in danger. Could it be rescued? Would the revolution go global?
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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