Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker is running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution. For the full list go to tinyurl.com/sw1917
The Socialist Workers Party will also be holding events throughout the year including a major conference on 4 November.
The dates of the Russian Revolution can be confusing. Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, when this was replaced by the Gregorian or New Style calendar. To convert Old Style dates to New Style dates, add 13 days. So 26 October 1917 Old Style becomes 8 November New Style. Importantly, the labour movement in Russia celebrated International Women’s Day and May Day on the same New Style date as workers elsewhere.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended the First World War, brought down three empires and opened the door to a socialist society based on human liberation.
As ruling classes across the world shook in horror, millions of people were inspired. The working class, always dismissed as too stupid or selfish to make decisions, now ran society without any need for the old Tsar, landowners or bosses.
As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “The history of a revolution is first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”.
That’s why every pundit—from the right wing Daily Mail to the liberal Guardian—will try to bury the revolution under a slag heap of lies.
Desperate to discredit the idea that workers can transform society, they will claim it was just a coup that brought dictatorship and oppression.
In reality when workers seized power in November 1917, they ushered in a totally different sort of society.
They had risen up under the slogan, “Peace, Bread and Land”. Within hours of workers taking control of the capital Petrograd, measures were brought in to meet these demands and give ordinary people control over their lives.
Only three years earlier Russia had joined the First World War, one of the greatest imperialist bloodbaths in history.
It fought alongside Britain and France as they struggled with Germany and Austria-Hungary to carve up Europe and the world.
Now the Bolshevik party, which had given leadership to the workers’ revolution, decreed an immediate end to fighting on all fronts.
The First World War wasn’t ended by the armistice in 1918, but by revolutions that brought down warmongering tyrants.
After 1917, a revolutionary wave swept through Europe, with revolutions first in Germany in 1918 and then Hungary and Slovakia in 1919. Workers struck and took to the streets. Soldiers mutinied in the trenches.
Along with the war, the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires came crashing down. The Bolsheviks granted the right for people in the former Russian Empire to decide whether they wanted their independence.
Throughout 1917, the demand for getting rid of the old factory managers had been growing.
Indeed, in March “carting out” had became a popular activity in Petrograd, as bullying managers were taken out of factories in wheelbarrows.
Now the Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited put workplaces in the hands of the working class. Outside of the cities land was taken from the old estates and given to the mass of peasants.
The revolution struck major blows for the liberation of the oppressed. For centuries the reactionary Orthodox Church had dictated “sexual morality”, but now the church and state were separated.
Women were guaranteed the right to a divorce, abortion on demand and the vote. Russia became the first country in the world to legalise homosexuality.Britain’s rulers only conceded these rights after mass protests much later—equal women’s suffrage in 1928, limited abortion and LGBT+ rights in 1967 and full divorce rights in 1969.
These important gains weren’t just decrees from above. Russian society and ordinary people’s ideas changed during the revolution.
The process of fighting against the old rulers meant that the “muck of ages”—reactionary and bigoted ideas—could begin to be washed away.
This was part of a much bigger process of human liberation. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that revolutions are “festivals of the oppressed and the exploited” who are normally kept down and made to feel worthless.
The revolution unleashed people’s creativity as they struggled to build a better future for themselves, not work for a boss or lord’s benefit. After 1917 there was flourishing of art, literature and culture.
John Reed was a US socialist journalist who reported on the Russian Revolution. In his book Ten Days that Shook the World, he describes how “all Russia was learning to read politics, economics, history because people wanted to know”.
“We came down to the front of the 12th Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches,” he wrote.
“When they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, ‘Did you bring anything to read?’”
This new society was built on a much deeper form of democracy based on the “soviets” or workers’ councils.
In a parliamentary democracy, such as Britain, people get to vote every five years.
MPs are elected, but the capitalist state is still run by an army of unelected judges, generals and top civil servants. Real power lies with the top bankers and bosses.
In contrast, soviet democracy was based on mass participation and workers running things themselves.
Factory, workplace, soldiers and neighbourhood councils had mass assemblies that elected delegates to the soviets.
Those elected were delegates, not representatives, who could be immediately recalled if they didn’t act on people’s democratic decisions.
Having witnessed the Petrograd soviet, Reed said that “no political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented”.
The soviets had first emerged in the earlier 1905 Russian Revolution. They were a grassroots creation by workers, who used them to direct the mass strikes against the Tsar and bosses.
The soviets were dissolved after that revolution failed, but reappeared in 1917 and took on a much bigger importance.
Discontent had been brewing as the war devastated an already impoverished society, but the final reckoning for Tsarism came in February 1917.
The immediate spark for the February Revolution was women textile workers striking on International Women’s Day to demand bread. Mainstream historians dismiss their heroic struggle as a “bread riot”.
A strike against victimisation at the militant Putilov steel works also fed into this.
On 23 February a mass demonstration clashed with soldiers—but a substantial chunk of the troops broke and joined the side of the demonstrators. Within five days the Tsar was gone and a new power known as the Provisional Government took over.
The Provisional Government was led by liberals and reformist socialists, who aimed to turn Russia into a parliamentary democracy like the Western capitalist countries.
This was initially popular among workers within the soviets—after all, a parliamentary democracy would be far better than the Tsar’s dictatorship.
Workers and peasants’ demands for change could not be met while Russia remained fighting an imperialist war.
But the Provisional Government promised to keep Russia in the war and didn’t want to upset the old social order too much. In Russia’s large cities, where capitalism had begun to develop, there was a relatively small but powerful working class. Meanwhile peasants, who made up the bulk of the army, wanted to gain control of their land from the powerful landowners.
People hoped the parties promising parliamentary democracy could deliver on reforms, but they failed.
So after February the working class began to radicalise and a substantial section began to look to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary socialist solutions. Factory committees began electing Bolsheviks to the soviets and party membership grew from 10,000 in February to 250,000 by November.
This radicalisation was most marked in Petrograd where workers had already risen in July.
The Bolsheviks fought alongside workers, but argued the time wasn’t right for a second revolution because workers outside of the city weren’t with them.
Seeing the situation spiral out of control, the Tsarist general Lavr Kornilov tried to launch a coup. While the Provisional Government hesitated, the Bolsheviks led resistance and gained support among workers.
By the time of the October Revolution, the masses were demanding radical change, the parties supporting parliamentary democracy were discredited and the old order was desperate to reassert itself.
The Bolsheviks popularised the demands of peace, bread and land. But they argued that only by seizing political power could the working class achieve them, and raised the slogan, “All power to the soviets”.
Above all 1917 showed—in John Reed’s words—that “workers are capable not only of great dreams, but that they have in them the power to make dreams come true.”