Russia 1917: When the people rose

The Bolsheviks, now with a quarter of a million members, represented the most politically conscious and determined workers. They could now, unlike in July, carry the majority of workers, soldiers and poor peasants with them in the fight to transfer power to the soviets. But Lenin had to continue arguing inside the Bolsheviks about how to maximise their growing support. In frantic notes from his hiding place in Finland, he attacked the Bolshevik fraction for their compromising role in the Democratic Conference in mid-September. The moderate socialists were doing all they could to use the conference to lull the workers and soldiers into a false sense of security and to create an aura of consensus to dispel the atmosphere of crisis after the Kornilov threat. Lenin was clear on where the Bolsheviks should have their sights at this most critical juncture:

“The Bolsheviks should have walked out of the meeting in protest and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions. The Bolsheviks should have left two or three of their 136 delegates for ‘liaison’ work, that is, to report by telephone the moment the idiotic babbling came to an end and the voting began. They should not have allowed themselves to be kept busy with obvious nonsense for the obvious purpose of deceiving the people with the obvious aim of extinguishing the growing revolution by wasting time on trivial matters.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Bolshevik delegation ought to have gone to the factories and barracks; that was the proper place for delegates who had come from all ends of Russia and who... could see the full depth of the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik rottenness. There, closer to the masses, at hundreds and thousands of meetings and talks, they ought to have discussed the lessons of this farcical conference … Parliamentarism should be used, especially in revolutionary times, not to waste valuable time over representatives of what is rotten, but to use the example of what is rotten to teach the masses.”

Before the experience of the Kornilov revolt, the workers and soldiers would not have defended a new government. But now they had witnessed the treachery of the government and the compromising “socialists” who still sat in it. The task now was to prepare for a second insurrection in which the soviets should take power.

“An insurrection on 3-4 July would have been a mistake; we could not have retained power either physically or politically … because our workers and soldiers would not have fought and died for Petrograd.”

The Insurrection

Historians like to point to a lack of mass mobilisations as “proof” that October was a coup carried out by the Bolsheviks. But this was not February. The soviets were already running most of society and the majority of the army had been won to support for transferring power to them. Wednesday, 25 October, is the day the revolution is celebrated, but by then the government had to all intents and purposes been overthrown. This is a fact ignored by the Bolsheviks’ detractors. They do not understand the insurrection as the culmination of nearly three weeks of preparations for transferring power. These weeks highlight the incredible wave of grass roots organising that swept the propertied classes from power.

A provocation by the provisional government began the final round of mobilisation, just as Trotsky anticipated. In the second week of October, the government announced plans to move the Petrograd garrison to the front, contrary to every understanding by the soldiers. Historian Alexander Rabinowitch catalogues the reaction: “Soldiers in Petrograd reacted to news of these orders with predictable vehemence. In unison, garrison troops proclaimed their lack of confidence in the provisional government and demanded the transfer of power to the soviets”. He writes of an “avalanche of anti-government resolutions adopted by garrison units”.

For a week, Petrograd was a hot house of mass meetings not just in the barracks but also in the factories. The streets were swamped by papers debating the latest moves. At the instigation of the Bolsheviks, on 15 October, soldiers were dispatched to the front to explain the political reasons for the garrison’s refusal to provide relief: they did not trust the motives of the provisional government, not that they wanted to avoid their responsibilities. This led to a conference of delegates from the front and the city garrison including representatives from the soviets. To the frustration of generals and the moderate socialists at this conference on 17 October, “the discussion was concerned as much with the need for transfer of power to the soviets, for peace, and for the long-suffering front-line soldier to return home, as it was with the question of getting new regiments into the trenches”.

The following day, the soldiers held a garrison conference and called for the transfer of power to the soviets. Not that they supported an uprising, but they would support any action to defend the soviets from the government and other reactionaries. A date of great significance is 22 October, Petrograd Soviet Day. There were concerts, speeches, mass meetings in factories around the city, huge gatherings in the streets and in public halls from morning till night, where old and young, women, men and children stood patiently for hours soaking up the words of Bolshevik orators such as Trotsky, Volodarsky, Lashevich, Kollantai, Raskolnikov and Krylenko.

Trotsky summed up the Bolsheviks’ main points: that the government was preparing to surrender Petrograd to the Germans rather than allow the soviets to rule, that the entire world would be engulfed by revolution if they took power, and that only a soviet regime could bring peace, distribute the land and defend true democracy. A journalist reported that when asked to pledge support for the soviet when it moved from words to deeds, the huge audience threw up its hands and chanted “We swear it!” Sukhanov also wrote of Trotsky’s appeals for a vow to carry through the revolution: “The vast crowd was holding up its hands. It agreed. It vowed”. Three days earlier, Trotsky had won a victory at a mass meeting of the Peter and Paul Fortress, a strategically important military centre. The meeting in the fortress square went on for hours after Trotsky spoke. But the overwhelming majority voted that military orders should only be obeyed from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The Red Guards continued to drill, to be tutored in handling of arms and to patrol factories and streets, preparing to defend a soviet takeover. As Trotsky outlined, the whole situation was leading inexorably to rule by the working class”

“In the provincial industrial regions … armed workers would remove managers and engineers, and even arrest them. In the Urals … companies of Red Guards led by the old veterans established law and order. Armed workers almost unnoticeably dissolved the old government and replaced it with soviet institutions. 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. In this way elements of a workers’ dictatorship were inaugurated in the factories and districts some time before the proletariat as a whole seized the state power.”

In Petrograd, where the leadership of the provisional government and the influence of the compromising socialists was greatest, the Red Guards could not impose their will so easily. However, about 25,000 workers were at least partially armed. One worker recalled that now they drilled openly in parks and on the boulevards instead of in their homes. Another says of October, “the shops [meaning workplaces] were turned into camps … The worker would stand at his bench with knapsack on his back and rifle beside him”. From 10 October, with insurrection openly on the agenda, the Red Guards enrolled virtually every worker in some factories. The commanding staff were all elected. All were volunteers and knew each other, so this was a new form of military organisation emerging out of the revolutionary process.

On 22 October, the Red Guards held a mass conference to finalise their plans for the insurrection. Two days later, the Vyborg district soviet issued an order to “immediately requisition all automobiles … Take an inventory of all first-aid supplies, and have nurses on duty in all clinics”. And all the time, the Red Guards and other organisations were drawing in increasing numbers of non-Bolshevik workers.

Moscow was also moving to soviet power. In response to a wave of strikes, a factory committee initiated an idea that the Bolsheviks took up. The result was “Revolutionary Decree No 1”, adopted by the soviets. Workers and clerks in factories and shops would henceforth be employed or discharged only with the consent of the factory committees and all industrial disputes would be found in the workers’ favour. As Trotsky wrote, “This meant that the soviet had begun to function as a state power”.

Faced with these developments, the government was increasingly isolated and paralysed. Trotsky wrote that in the final confrontation, “the weakness of the government exceeded all expectation”. And every effort by the government to shore up its position was interpreted by the workers and soldiers as an act of aggression:

“The raising of the bridges [by the government] was received by the population as an official announcement of the beginning of the insurrection … [The] struggle for the bridges assumed the character of a test for both sides … Only Dvortsovy Bridge remained several hours in the hands of the government patrols.”

At 5.30am on 24 October, a detachment of Junkers (reactionary soldiers) turned up at the Bolshevik printing presses; they smashed the equipment and sealed the building. The government seemingly had scored its first victory despite its weak position. A male and a female worker ran to Smolny, the soviet’s headquarters. If the Military Revolutionary Committee would give them the order, the workers would bring out the Bolshevik paper. The order was given, loyal regiments were sent for and the workers opened the building and set to work. “The newspaper suppressed by the government came out under protection of the troops of a committee which was itself liable to arrest”, wrote Trotsky. “That was insurrection. That is how it developed.” Twelve hours later, when soldiers turned up at a printing plant to suppress the Petrograd Soviet paper Worker and Soldier, there was no need to ask. The printing workers, helped by two sailors, simply seized the car filled with printing paper, dispersed the aggressors and brought out the paper. Rather than intimidating people, the attempts to close the working class’ and soldiers’ press spurred on their organisation and confidence while strengthening the sense of common cause.

The days that shook the world

When the government tried to send to the front the garrison that had defended the revolution in Petrograd, when it moved to close the Bolshevik printing presses and drew up the bridges, it opened the floodgates to the insurrection. The preparation, the feverish debates and discussions in the streets, factories and barracks, had prepared vast numbers of workers and the soldiers to defend the soviet. They understood that the defeat of the Bolsheviks would mean the victory of the counter-revolution and the end of their hopes. That is why 24 and 25 October look like a military exercise when taken out of the context of the previous weeks. There was no need of mass mobilisations. The only question remaining was who would prevail. Would the Bolsheviks’ actions to repel the attacks from the government galvanise the promised defence? They did. Trotsky paints a vivid picture of the city on the evening of 25 October, the day that would shake the international bourgeois world to its foundations:

“In the Vyborg district opposite the headquarters of the Red Guard a whole camp was created: the street was jammed full of wagons, passenger cars and trucks. The institutions of the district were swarming with armed workers. The soviet, the Duma, the trade unions, the factory and shop committees – everything in this district – were serving the cause of the insurrection. In the factories and barracks and various institutions the same thing was happening in a smaller way as throughout the whole capital: they were crowding out some and electing others, breaking the last threads of the old and strengthening the new … At continuous meetings fresh information was given out, fighting confidence kept up and ties reinforced. The human masses were crystallising along new axes; a revolution was achieving itself.”

“Attempting to kindle the patriotism of the masses by threatening the loss of Petrograd, the compromisers introduced into the soviet on October 9 a motion to create a ‘committee of revolutionary defence’ whose task should be to take part in the defence of the capital with the active cooperation of the workers.”

The SRs maintained the majority support of the peasantry. But by September, more than half of their representatives had split with the main party. These left SRs joined the Soviet government in coalition with the Bolsheviks. In the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, beginning on the night of the insurrection, there was a large Bolshevik majority. The congress opened with 650 delegates; 390 were Bolsheviks, even though many weren’t members of the party. Overwhelming support for the insurrection was evident even among non-Bolsheviks. Asked for their view, 505 responded that they were for all power to the soviets. The Mensheviks and SRs had squandered their political capital from the February revolution. In the June congress they had 600 of 882 delegates. Now they had less than a quarter of the votes. And an overwhelming majority of these were “lefts” who veered toward the Bolsheviks. The delegates counted 900 before the end, but the proportion of Bolsheviks held steady. Morgan Philips Price, who originally opposed the Bolsheviks, argued:

“The government of M Kerensky fell before the Bolshevik insurgents because it had no supporters in the country. The bourgeois parties and the generals of the staff disliked it because it would not establish a military dictatorship. The revolutionary democracy lost faith in it because after eight months it had neither given land to the peasants nor established state control of industries nor advanced the cause of the Russian peace programme.”

The general opinion of the Bolsheviks’ opponents was that they would be easily overthrown. John Reed commented: “That the Bolsheviki would remain in power longer than three days never occurred to anybody – except perhaps to Lenin, Trotsky, the Petrograd workers and the simple soldiers”.

There are always those who, like a writer in a conservative daily, sneer at Lenin’s idea that every cook can govern:
“Let us suppose for a moment that the Bolsheviks do gain the upper hand. Who will govern us then: the cooks perhaps, those connoisseurs of cutlets and beefsteaks? Or maybe the firemen? The stableboys, the chauffeurs? Or perhaps the nursemaids will rush off to meetings of the Council of State between the diaper washing sessions? Who then? Where are the statesmen? Perhaps the mechanics will run the theatres, the plumbers foreign affairs, the carpenters, the post office. Who will it be? History alone will give a definitive answer to this mad ambition of the Bolsheviks.”

This disbelief in the ability of workers to shape history casts its shadow over virtually all interpretations of the revolution. The lie that October was a coup, that the Bolsheviks opportunistically manipulated events to their own narrow purpose – these untruths rest on the elitist assumption that workers are easily duped by cynical leaders. They are used to discredit not just the Bolsheviks and the revolution, but the very idea of workers’ power. This is the real agenda behind historians’ inability – or refusal – to acknowledge that October was a popular revolution with the backing of millions of working people. This truth was summed up by Martov, Lenin’s long time political opponent, in a private communication in which he had no reason to tell anything but the truth:

“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.”

After October

The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened notable not only for its proclamations; its composition was strikingly different from the last one in June as was the political line up. These three aspects were all entwined. In June, intellectuals and army officers had been prominent. John Reed graphically described a very different situation now:

“[T]he new delegates come in – burly, bearded soldiers, workmen and black blouses, a few long-haired peasants. The girl in charge – a member of Plekhanov’s Edinstvo group – smiled contemptuously. ‘These are very different people from the delegates to the first Sezd’, she remarked. ‘See how rough and ignorant they look! The Dark People …’. It was true: the depths of Russia had been stirred, and it was the bottom which came uppermost now.”

That Menshevik woman, by talking to the revolution’s chronicler, inadvertently left a clue for history as to why the Mensheviks’ representation had plummeted from more than 200 delegates in June to less than 70. Their “aristocratic scorn” for the masses, in Trotsky’s words, meant they could never win the authority the Bolsheviks achieved.

The October revolution consolidated the gains since February for masses of people in Russia; but it was also a huge leap into the future. First were the decrees: a call to all the countries at war to start immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace; all land to be “confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it”; the enslaved national minorities of the Russian Empire given the right to independence, including secession; and workers’ control over production as the basis for the reorganisation of the economy for the good of the population.

Inspiring as they were, decrees could not solve the problems the revolutionary government faced: devastation caused by the war and deliberate sabotage by the owners of industry. And within months civil war until 1921 during which all the imperialist armies, including Australia’s, invaded to support the counter-revolutionary White Armies, to crush the revolution. Astonishingly this counter-revolution was defeated, a tribute to the workers’ democracy. It was a beacon of humanity, despite fighting a vicious war, compared to the anti-Semitic pogroms, massacres and reinstatement of the hated landlords by the White Army and its backers from the supposedly cultured and civilised Western powers. So the workers’ state engendered in the peasantry sufficient loyalty for them to reluctantly submit to the requisitioning of grain to feed the cities and the Red Army.

The tragedy was that the economy was in ruins and the workforce reduced to a fraction of its former power. By April 1918, the factory workforce in Petrograd was 40 percent of that in 1917, and it kept declining. The defeat of workers’ revolutions in the West left Russia devastated and isolated. The material basis for socialism – workers’ democratic power in the workplaces and sufficient production to provide a decent life for all – did not exist. Stalin, formerly a Bolshevik leader, oversaw the final counter-revolution. The monstrous, bureaucratic class rule he built trampled all the gains won by the workers’ democracy. Stalin’s claim to be building “socialism in one country” besmirched the revolution’s reputation, dragged its international spirit through the mud as he built an imperialist arsenal to compete with the West.

Yet before his counter-revolution, in the midst of war, economic collapse and international isolation, the soviet government instituted far reaching and radical changes, some of which we are yet to win in the richest democracies. As well as those already mentioned, in its first year, the soviet government decreed universal suffrage and abolished the right of inheritance. Marriage and divorce laws were taken out of the remit of the church or state. Illegitimacy was abolished as a legal concept, paid maternity leave before and after birth was enshrined in law. Communal kitchens and child care centres to free women from the burdens of the family proliferated. Literacy programs and education were a priority. People thirsted for reading matter, which was delivered in train loads with visiting libraries, public lectures and movie theatres. The start of the school year in 1918 had to be delayed because teachers, in the tradition of workers’ democracy, were still debating teaching methods!

The revolution demonstrates how the most oppressed are lifted up to participate in their own liberation in mass struggle. Millions of workers, soldiers and the oppressed became increasingly radical, serving at every level of activity in October.

As we celebrate the centenary of the revolution, the lessons we can learn from those workers are more relevant than ever. Just think about it: today, the most powerful country on earth has a repressive president surrounded by a rabble of lunatic neo-fascists, mass poverty amidst obscene wealth and spending on war machines. The similarities with Russia 1917 are eerily striking despite the differences. In a passage that easily translates into a description of the current president of the United States, Trotsky wrote of Tsar Nicholas II:

“This dim, equable and ‘well-bred’ man was cruel … At the very dawn of his reign Nicholas praised the Phanagoritsy regiment as ‘fine fellows’ for shooting down workers. He always ‘read with satisfaction’ how they flogged with whips the bob-haired girl-students, or cracked the heads of defenceless people during anti-Jewish pogroms. This crowned black sheep gravitated with all his soul to the very dregs of society, the Black Hundred hooligans [the equivalent of today’s fascists or alt-right].”

We learn from the past so we can turn toward the struggles of the future. The Russian revolution should inspire us to believe in our own strength. It teaches us that workers can unite, that the oppressed can rise up, that workers can come to see that they need to and can run society. That’s why the events of 1917 are worth celebrating.