On 25 October 1917, the Russian working class took power. At a meeting of the Congress of Soviets, the peak democratic body representing millions of workers, peasants and soldiers, Lenin declared: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”. How? Lenin continued: “Creative activity at the grass roots is the most basic factor of the new public life ... Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves”.
Within a fortnight of the revolution, the revolutionary government issued a Decree on Workers Control. Decisions about production were to be made by workers’ organisations: the soviets, the factory committees and the trade unions.
It was only one of a whirlwind of revolutionary decrees: in its first year, the Soviet government decreed universal suffrage and abolished inherited wealth, removed state control of marriage and divorce, and removed homosexuality from the criminal code. National minorities were granted the right to independence—including secession from Russia; religious minorities were empowered through the introduction of full freedom of religion.
Women workers won equal pay with men; many became the elected leaders of soviets and workers’ militias. To aid women’s full participation in political life, the impoverished and war-ravaged country put together communal kitchens, and childcare centres were created, to free them from the burdens of family life.
The revolutionary government issued decree after decree, expecting the empowered revolutionary workers to carry them out through self-organisation. “Never since the creation of the world have so many orders been issued”, Leon Trotsky later wrote, “by word of mouth, by pencil, by typewriter, by wire, one following after the other”.
Eight months earlier, in the February revolution, a wave of strikes had overthrown the centuries-old autocratic dictatorship. Months of chaotic debate had followed. From February onwards, Russia’s population, writes historian Rex A. Wade, “burst forth in a dazzling display of self-assertiveness, public meetings, and creation of new organizations. Announcements of congresses, conferences, committees, meetings, organizations being formed, and other manifestations of a newly unfettered public life filled the newspapers”. But for months it was unclear what the outcome of this debate would be: a moderate settlement? Capitalist democracy? A restoration of right-wing rule or military dictatorship? After eight months of debate, the working class decided to take power, and the October Revolution took place.
How did workers get from February’s “dazzling display of self-assertiveness” to October’s decision to take power and construct “living, creative socialism”, without being defeated by counter-revolution or exhausting themselves in disorganisation and internal dispute? The role of the much misunderstood revolutionary Bolshevik Party was the key element.
The Bolsheviks were an overwhelmingly working-class party, composed of some tens of thousands of working-class socialists, mostly organised in the workplaces of the big industrial centres. By the end of 1917 the party had hundreds of thousands of members, as the most dedicated revolutionary activists joined them.
The “talking, talking, talking” atmosphere had drawn millions of workers into debates. Political questions had been posed and solved. New demands were raised, and aspirations grew. At each point in these debates, the Bolsheviks had argued for workers to be bolder, to organise themselves and take responsibility for leading the revolution.
The horror of the First World War had led to the revolution. Impoverished peasants in Russia’s countryside demanded redistribution of land, and increasingly militant workers demanded control over their workplaces. These three questions dominated the period after the overthrow of the old dictatorship in February. The Bolsheviks argued that to solve these problems, workers would need to take power into their own hands. They emphasised the connection between political and economic struggle and attempted to forge bonds of solidarity between peasants, workers and soldiers.
The great hope of the February Revolution was that it would end the war. But after the fall of the tsar, a new self-appointed and unelected “provisional government” proclaimed itself the new authority, and it was committed to the war’s continuation. The head of the government, Alexander Kerensky, informed troops that “the inevitability and necessity of sacrifice must rule the hearts of Russian soldiers” and that “I summon you not to a feast but to death”.
To continue the imperialist war necessitated order, not revolutionary freedom. Strikes were proliferating, and workers raised demands ranging from wage rises to the eight-hour day; the provisional government called for “restraint on both sides”. Izvestia, the newspaper of the Menshevik party, argued that “the wartime situation in the revolution forces both sides to exercise extreme caution in utilising the sharper weapons of class struggle such as strikes and lockouts. These circumstances make it necessary to settle all disputes by means of negotiation and agreement rather than by open conflict”. Both Kerensky and the Mensheviks were supposedly socialists, but now they were arguing to restrain the revolution, to hold back workers’ struggles and to prolong the war.
The Bolsheviks’ anti-war position was unique. It drew the connection between the war and international workers’ revolution. Lenin, the most important leading figure of the Bolsheviks, argued that the provisional government’s capitalist nature drove its pro-war stance. To end the war, workers of all nations would have to fight their own ruling classes. Marx’s old slogan, “Workers of the world unite”, was given a concrete meaning: soldiers of opposing armies should fraternise, and workers should make war on their bosses.
The drive to restore order sent the provisional government and its moderate socialist supporters on a collision course with the institutions of popular democracy, which in turn increasingly supported the Bolsheviks. More than 2,000 trade unions emerged in 1917. Factory committees—elected in workplaces by all workers regardless of sex, religion or background—emerged to deal with everything from fixing light globes to leading fights for better conditions. But the most significant institution was the soviets: a network of revolutionary councils of representatives of any and all workplaces, plus soldiers and peasants. The moderate socialist chronicler of the revolution Nikolai Sukhanov rightly called the soviets “the very crucible of great events, the laboratory of the revolution”. Institutions like these had to be repressed to carry out a disciplined war effort.
By the middle of the year, strikes escalated into a movement for workers’ control of the factories. But workers’ control at the level of an individual workplace was more and more obviously insufficient. The economy was collapsing under the strain of the war. Prices rose 2,300 percent between February and October; real wages fell by almost half.
In the factories, Bolshevik activists led strikes, but they also raised political slogans like “All power to the soviets” and “Overthrow the provisional government” during debates about wages, working conditions and other economic questions. As the historian David Mandel puts it: “[T]he very strong interconnections between the economic and political spheres, both in the workers’ consciousness and in objective reality itself, were evident from the very start. It was the desire of the moderate socialist leadership of the Soviet to keep the two separate that, in fact, underlay the first conflict between it and the worker rank-and-file ... these interconnections would grow into a virtual merging of the two spheres with all threads uniting in one overriding demand: ‘All power to the soviets!’”
The Bolsheviks called on poor peasants to rise up against landlords and seize land for themselves. Unlike the other political parties, the Bolsheviks encouraged peasants to take direct action rather than wait for the provisional government’s constantly delayed inquiries into the land question. By August, 482 of Russia’s 624 districts had experienced peasant revolts. Bolshevik militants convinced urban workers to champion the needs of the rural poor. They understood that, for workers to take and hold power, they would need to be the recognised champions of all the oppressed.
The Bolsheviks had spent the year arguing for workers to take power while also leading on-the-ground struggles. Their orientation bore fruit in August, when a decisive battle took place against a coup attempt by the tsarist loyalist General Lavr Kornilov. The factory committees, under Bolshevik leadership, organised 40,000 volunteer “Red Guards” led by Trotsky, while worker militants in key industries took control of the production process to create havoc for Kornilov’s troops, redirecting vital shipments, as Trotsky wrote: “In a mysterious way, echelons would find themselves moving on the wrong roads. Regiments would arrive in the wrong division, artillery would be sent up a blind alley”. The coup was defeated in four days. On the heels of the defeat of the coup, the provisional government attempted, unsuccessfully, to disarm and disband the workers and factory committees.
The Bolsheviks had won the support of the working class, because only they supported the self-activity of the working class in a way that could defeat counter-revolution. “All power to the soviets” was not just a slogan: it was a perspective that informed their entire intervention. In the permanent debates in the streets as well as in the trade unions, the factory committees and the soviets, Bolsheviks argued for workers to take political positions, make decisions about society and use their collective strength to make those decisions happen.
Not long afterwards, the provisional government threatened to surrender the city of Petrograd to the German army in order to crush the heart of worker militancy. In the second week of October it ordered the radical soldiers of the Petrograd garrison to leave the city and go to war. Historian Alexander Rabinowitch recalls that this provoked “an avalanche of anti-government resolutions adopted by garrison units”. A meeting of the Petrograd-based Second Baltic Fleet Detachment was reflective of the mood: it adopted a resolution that proclaimed: “[A]s ardent enemies of the coalition Provisional Government ... we await with great impatience the portentous opening of the Congress of Representatives of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, in which we have faith, and which we invite to take power”. Similar resolutions came out of the factories.
On 22 October, three days before the insurrection, again the masses made their wishes clear. This was the “Day of the Petrograd Soviet”, when rallies had been called in support of this revolutionary institution. The city became engulfed in mass meetings, concerts, factory debates and gatherings in every available city hall. To the mushrooming crowds Trotsky, at this time one of the Bolsheviks’ central leaders and best known public figures, posed the question of whether they would support and defend soviet power, and they roared back: “We swear it!” The intervention of party activists cohered the revolutionary workers on a mass scale, and prepared them for decisive action.
On 25 October, the day of the insurrection, Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the remaining leaders of the provisional government. The insurrection had not just mass support, but mass participation, as Trotsky recounts: “In the provincial industrial regions ... armed workers would remove managers and engineers, and even arrest them ... Sabotage on the part of the property owners and administrators shifted to the workers the task of protecting the plants ... Roles were here interchanged: the worker would tightly grip his rifle in defence of the factory in which he saw the source of his power”.
Trotsky was able to write so clearly of the insurrection because, as a leading activist of the Bolsheviks, he was one of its most active participants. As Sukhanov witnessed: “Trotsky ... rushed from the Obukhovsky plant to the Trubochny, from the Putilov to the Baltic works, from the riding school to the barracks; he seemed to be speaking at all points simultaneously. His influence, both among the masses and on the staff, was overwhelming”.
The seamlessness of the insurrection reflected the fact that Bolsheviks had spent weeks debating, preparing and organising for it. Red Guards enrolled whole factories as volunteers, women created Red Cross divisions and gave lectures on caring for the wounded and organised factory level bands of nurses. Workers requisitioned and inventoried automobiles to build up their apparatus of self-defence. Debates raged about the potential timing of an insurrection at party congresses and in party papers; polemics were often leaked and reprinted in bourgeois papers.
The idea that October was a coup does a disservice first and foremost to the Russian masses. They had been deep in debate for all of 1917. In fact, defeating August’s right-wing coup had laid the basis for their uprising in October. They had resisted attack after attack by the provisional government, had thrown bosses out of factories, and by October many were organised into socialist militias. The October revolution was swift and relatively bloodless because it had mass support. Sukhanov wrote: “To talk about military conspiracy instead of national insurrection, when the party was followed by the overwhelming majority of the people, when the party had already de facto conquered all real power and authority was clearly an absurdity”. Menshevik leader Julius Martov acknowledged: “Understand, please, that 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”.
Robert Service, an anti-Bolshevik historian, similarly is forced to admit: “What really counted was that the Bolshevik political programme proved steadily more appealing to the mass of workers, soldiers and peasants as social turmoil and economic ruin reached a climax in late autumn. But for that there could have been no October revolution”.
The art, music, theatre, pedagogy, environmental policies, literacy programs, child care and communal kitchens that proliferated in the first year of workers power are the subject of much admiration and discussion even today. However, to move beyond nostalgia and reach those heights again, we have to take seriously the politics that made it all possible. The workers’ conquest of power required both their own spontaneous, creative revolutionary energy, and a working-class political organisation dedicated to helping that energy transform the world.