Socialist Worker

Why it’s better to be Bolshie

Revolts repeatedly break out, but they don’t always win. The Bolshevik party in Russia showed how socialist organisation plays a critical role in driving revolutions forward to victory

Issue No. 2540

Bolshevik leaders in 1920

Bolshevik leaders in 1920


Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker will be running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution

Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker is running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution. Click here for the introductory article, and 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.


1917 timeline

10 February (23 February in modern ‘New Style’ calendar)

  • The Councillor of State Mikhail Rodzianko warns Tsar Nicholas II of massive upheaval

  • Bolsheviks call a strike in Petrograd to protest the 1915 arrest of their MPs for opposing the war


Pundits of all stripes will have a lot to say about the Bolshevik party this year. But they’ll say little about who the Bolsheviks actually were—and how they led the Russian Revolution.

When the revolution began in February 1917 the Bolsheviks had just 10,000 members, but by November they had 250,000.

The bulk of the working class, which had taken power with their leadership, supported them.

That’s because the Bolsheviks knew that the working class had to take power for the revolution to succeed. They also understood that socialist

organisation was essential to making sure that happened.

This set them apart from the two other major left wing parties, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Mensheviks.

The SRs and the Mensheviks both took part in the revolution when it began, but they didn’t believe the working class was capable of taking power.

They believed that setting up a capitalist parliamentary democracy was the limit of what was possible.

But the Bolsheviks argued that the councils that workers had set up, called soviets, laid the basis for a workers’ government.

This difference meant the Bolsheviks took much clearer positions than the SRs and the Mensheviks.

After the Tsarist monarchy was overthrown in February, the SRs and Mensheviks backed Russia’s involvement in the First World War to “defend” their new capitalist democracy.

But the Bolsheviks demanded an immediate end to the war. They argued that even though Russia had a new Provisional Government, the war was still an imperialist bloodbath.

The Provisional Government was trying to hold together a society that was falling apart and the soviets were becoming a threat to its authority.

The SRs and the Mensheviks joined and backed it against the soviets—even as workers began to look beyond it.

Power

But the Bolsheviks were on the side of the growing mass of workers who were fed up with the Provisional Government. This meant they were able to connect with the growing radical mood—and argue for the soviets to take power.

The Bolsheviks’ success wasn’t just based on having the right arguments.

Pundits claim that the Bolsheviks opportunistically imposed themselves as leaders.

They want to portray the Bolsheviks as outsiders who took advantage of workers’ anger to launch a coup.

The Bolsheviks did give the working class leadership—but were only able to do so because they were part of the working class.

Most of the Bolsheviks’ members were workers. They fought the same battles in the factories and the soviets as other workers—and constantly debated and argued the way forward.

It was only through proving themselves in struggle that the Bolsheviks could win the trust and leadership of the workers.

As workers radicalised throughout 1917, more and more joined the Bolsheviks.

The party became more rooted and built stronger links with the mass of workers during the revolution.

That was the type of organisation that the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin imagined at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) had only recently been formed and revolutionaries in Russia were still grappling with how to organise.

Lenin argued that there needed to be “an organisation ready at any time to support every protest and every outbreak and use it to consolidate the fighting forces suitable for the decisive struggle.”

He was arguing against revolutionaries who only tried to organise workers to fight around narrow “economic” demands such as wages.

They thought that workers’ struggles for small gains would naturally lead them to challenge the system.

But Lenin argued that it wasn’t enough to only organise workplace struggles—revolutionaries had to fight political battles too.

This also meant fighting against all forms of oppression, “no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people if affects”.

The point was to draw together all these different struggles—and point them towards a bigger fight against the system that produced them.

The organisation that could do this had be involved in all aspects of the struggle, but it also had to be “centralised”.

Local groups fed back their experiences to an elected leadership which made decisions.

This ensured the organisation could react quickly to changes in the struggle—and the whole organisation would act together.

Lenin’s proposals led to the first split between the Bolshevik and the Menshevik wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

He argued that the party needed a tight membership of dedicated revolutionaries—but the Mensheviks preferred a looser type of organisation.

Flexible

But the form Bolshevik organisation took was incredibly flexible.

During the 1905 revolution, Lenin argued to “open the gates of the party” so it could reach new layers of workers who had become radicalised.

After the revolution’s failure the Bolsheviks faced mass repression. It forced their leadership into exile and the party to operate in strict secrecy.

The Mensheviks were more often the larger of the two in the run-up to the 1917 revolution.

But when it broke out the Bolsheviks were able to react quickly to rapidly unfolding developments.

They moved to the forefront of the revolution while the Mensheviks quibbled, split and disintegrated. That’s not to say that the Bolsheviks never had disagreements or made mistakes.

Even in the midst of the revolution they were constantly debating and occasionally getting things wrong.

But their centralised organisation, rooted in workers’ struggle, meant they were able to recognise mistakes, argue them out and correct them.

For instance at the start of the revolution the Bolsheviks, headed by Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, supported the Provisional Government and continuing the war. Lenin led the argument against them and had won out by April.

But as revolutionary Leon Trotsky pointed out, he was only successful because Bolshevik activists were already used to constantly pushing the struggle forward. They “strove to act—however confused by their leaders—like uncompromising revolutionists”.

When the First World War broke out, Bolshevik groups came out against the war before the leadership.

Crucially it was the Bolsheviks’ working class membership, waging the struggle on the ground, that saw the need to fight for workers to take power.

Committed to the struggle, the Bolsheviks were able to play a decisive role in key events of the revolution.

When armed soldiers and workers took to the streets of the capital Petrograd in July to demonstrate against the Provisional Government the Bolsheviks were with them.

But they also knew that workers in other parts of Russia weren’t ready to overthrow the government. So while fighting alongside the workers in Petrograd, they also argued against taking power at that time.

The Bolsheviks withstood attempts by the Provisional Government to smash them after July.

And their strong organisation inside the class meant the government had to rely on them to defeat a right wing coup attempt in August.

Active

Their active participation in the struggle meant they quickly won the respect of workers. US socialist journalist John Reed, described how the Bolsheviks “took the simple desires of the workers and from them built their immediate programme.

“In July they were hunted and despised; by September the metropolitan workmen, the sailors of the Baltic Fleet, and the soldiers had been won almost entirely to their cause.

“One by one, the Bolsheviks were winning in the local Soviets all over the country.”

By October the Bolsheviks had enough support in the Soviets to argue for the insurrection that saw workers overthrow the Provisional Government.

Their organisation—clear enough to take the hardest positions, and strongly organised to fight for them inside the working class—was key to the success of workers’ struggles.


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