The revolution in Russia in February 1917 created a very unstable situation with two sources of power – the provisional government and the soviets, or workers’ councils. Lenin called this “dual power”.
The provisional government, under pressure to show its strength, launched a massive military offensive against Germany and Austria in June.
In early July an army regiment due to be sent to the front initiated a huge demonstration in Petrograd.
An insurrectionary mood developed and the slogan “Down with the provisional government – all power to the soviets” was widely taken up.
Bolshevik ideas dominated in Petrograd – but not in the rest of Russia. Lenin calculated that an insurrection would be isolated and easily defeated.
He argued for peaceful demonstrations that should then disperse. “Mistakes are inevitable when the masses are fighting, but the communists remain with the masses, see these mistakes, explain them to the masses, try to get them rectified, and strive perseveringly for the victory of class consciousness over spontaneity,” he argued.
The Mensheviks opposed an uprising during the “July Days” because they were afraid of anger from below. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, simply calculated that it couldn’t win.
The Bolsheviks didn’t stand by while the workers lost – they took part in the fighting at the same time as explaining why the fighting should end. Although a wholesale rout was avoided, the Bolsheviks were banned, and Lenin forced into hiding. The forces of reaction smelt blood.
In August the right wing General Kornilov gathered a monarchist army ready to march on Petrograd and shut down not just the Bolsheviks but the soviets and Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government too.
The Bolsheviks had been banned by Kerensky only a month earlier, but they knew that they now had to throw themselves into the fight against Kornilov.
“We are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky,” wrote Lenin.
“On the contrary, we expose his weakness… The war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in, by arousing them, by inflaming them.”
The coup was defeated because the Bolsheviks were able to mobilise the masses and to organise the fight. They used it to prove in practice that they were the best at defending Russian workers’ interests.
Between February and September 1917 the Bolsheviks won the support and respect of the majority of Russia’s workers. A disciplined combat party capable of sharp strategic twists and turns was necessary for this.
Lenin’s leadership, and his ability to sense the mood of the masses and shift the party towards them, was just as important.
It was because the Bolsheviks Party acted together, as a party, after democratic internal debate, that it was capable of learning lessons from the struggle and of applying them to new situations.
At the end of August the Bolsheviks won an overall majority in the Petrograd Soviet. Other soviets soon followed. By October they had the majority in the All-Russia Congress of Soviets.
The most democratic institution the world had ever seen voted to dismantle the old state structure. Power passed to the workers almost without a gunshot.
The October Revolution briefly ushered in some extremely progressive measures. Russia withdrew from the war, land was redistributed, and production was placed in the hands of the workers.
However the revolution failed to spread internationally. Strangled by invading armies and civil war, revolutionary Russia was isolated.
Thousands of the workers who had made the revolution were killed fighting to defend it. Industry was in ruins. This was the context in which Joseph Stalin was able to rise to power and stick the nail in the coffin of the revolution.
Lenin died in 1924 so didn’t live to see the true horrors of Stalinism. But one of Lenin’s last political acts was to write a “testament” calling for the removal of Stalin as the party general secretary.
The history of the last 100 years has been punctuated by a litany of spontaneous revolutions similar to February 1917 in which workers have recreated workers’ councils like the soviets and where dual power has existed.
We can learn from the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks about the types of organisation needed to ensure the next February is followed by an October.