Socialist Worker

How workers won in 1917

Issue No. 2578

A meeting of the soldiers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917

A meeting of the soldiers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917


The Provisional Government assembled in the Winter Palace at 9pm on 25 October to “work out methods for the resolute and final liquidation of the Bolsheviks”.

By 2am the next morning workers had stormed the palace—and carried out the resolute and final liquidation of their rulers.

The storming of the Winter Palace marked the high point of the October Revolution in 1917. Socialist journalist John Reed described what happened in his eyewitness account Ten Days that Shook the World.

“Like a black river, filling all the street, without song or cheer we poured through the Red Arch,” he wrote.

By this time there was very little resistance, as the palace had only been guarded by a few remaining loyal troops. The Cossacks, crack mounted troops, disappeared as the workers approached.

“I could see that the first two or three hundred men were Red Guards, with only a few scattered soldiers,” wrote Reed.

“On both sides of the main gateway the doors stood wide open, light streamed out, and from the huge pile came not the slightest sound.”

Symbolic

Though symbolic, the insurrection took more than just the Winter Palace.

Armed workers seized railway stations, telegraph offices and other key communication points. This way they could spread the message to workers across Russia to join the insurrection.

Workers who had been dismissed as too stupid to have a real say in anything now walked through the corridors of power.

It was culmination of deep disillusionment with the Provisional Government that had replaced the Tsarist dictatorship in February 1917.

Petrograd had been in revolutionary ferment for days in the run-up to the insurrection. The choice was simple—socialist revolution or deadly reaction.

“On one side the Monarchist press, inciting to bloody repression,” wrote Reed.

“On the other Lenin’s great voice roaring, ‘Insurrection! We cannot wait any longer!’”

Support was falling away from the authorities and gathering behind the Petrograd Soviet.

Workers

Kerensky and the Provisional Government tried to get Cossacks to turn on the workers. They had planned a Procession of the Cross for the Icon of 1612 that had supposedly helped beat Napoleon.

It was called on the same day as the Petrograd Soviet had planned mass meetings across the city.

The soviet made a direct appeal to the Cossacks against their generals. “We are hated by all grafters, rich men, princes, nobles, generals, including your Cossack generals,” it read.

“They are ready at any moment to destroy the Petrograd Soviet and crush the Revolution”.

The Cossack leaders were forced to call the procession off.

The Bolshevik central committee—its leadership—met on 23 October and backed armed insurrection by 10 to 2.

It resolved that an “armed uprising is inevitable” and “that the time for it is fully ripe”.

Throughout the factories, barracks and neighbourhoods the Bolshevik party argued for the slogan, “All power to the soviets”.

The Bolsheviks won the argument for insurrection—but the call came from the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet.

The October Revolution involved the mass participation of workers.

Orders went out to other soviets to support the insurrection.

“The Military Revolutionary Committee sent a telegram that night to Helsingfors, to Smilga, the president of the regional Committee of the Soviets, ‘Send regulations’,” wrote Leon Trotsky.

“That meant—send immediately 1,500 chosen Baltic sailors armed to the teeth.”

By the time the Cruiser Aurora fired a blank into the Winter Palace most of Petrograd belonged to the workers.

The Palace’s capture was mainly symbolic. But the workers had not simply stormed the palace—they had stormed heaven.


Soviets—where workers discovered their power

Soviets, or workers’ councils, were the motors of the 1917 revolution and the new workers’ government. They offered a glimpse into what true workers’ power could look like.

Soviets were councils made up of mostly workers and soldiers.

They came from a direct need to organise the revolution.

An overprinted Russian postage stamp

An overprinted Russian postage stamp


Workers, peasants and soldiers would debate and share their experiences of the revolution at giant All-Russian Congresses.

Sukhanov, a witness to the revolution, wrote that visiting peasants “uttered their stormy, heroic hymns to the revolution.

“They excited the audience, took possession of it, and somehow illuminated it, welding it into one by the heroic emotion of the revolution.”

The soviets’ strength came from the fact that they organised workers where they were most powerful.

The soviets in Petrograd were based around the city’s huge factories that were the backbone of Russian capitalism.

So workers began to have a say about how society was run.

They became so powerful that they eventually replaced Russia’s capitalist Provisional Government. Leading revolutionary Trotsky, who was elected head of the Petrograd soviet, called it a “workers’ government in embryo”.

Democracy

For that reason the soviets were also the highest point of democracy.

Each soviet was made up of delegates who, unlike our rulers today, were directly accountable to the workers who elected them.

Delegates could be recalled immediately if workers decided—and they often were. Even after the October Revolution, Bolshevik delegates were recalled after a demonstration by supporters of the old government was fired on by a workers’ militia.

It took weeks before the Bolsheviks were re-elected to the Soviet again.

In every mass uprising bodies like soviets have been organised—but in Russia they had real power.

Soviets are not only an example of one of the most democratic ways to organise a society but also point to possibilities for the future.


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