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1917 – Russia in revolution

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Chris Bambery introduces a Socialist Worker special to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution
Issue 2075
A 1920 poster by Nikolai Kochergin calls for a global revolution
A 1920 poster by Nikolai Kochergin calls for a global revolution

The 1917 Russian revolution ushered in a radical new society. Workers’ control of production, land to the people who worked it, an immediate peace with no annexation and the right to self-determination for colonised people.

These were the steps taken within a few hours of the workers, soldiers and sailors taking control of the Russian capital Petrograd, now St Petersburg, on 7 November 1917 (under the calendar used in Russia at the time this date fell in October which is why it is known as the October Revolution).

Those measures were a huge step forward even from the rights we enjoy today. The new Soviet constitution enshrined full and equal voting rights for women. Britain only did this in 1928 and in Switzerland women had to wait until 1971.

Sex between men was made legal as was abortion, while divorce was available on the request of either partner. Divorce only became available for most people in Britain in 1969 and abortion and gay sex were only legalised in 1967.

Church and state were separated – the new state gave no favour to any one religion – yet freedom of worship was guaranteed. That meant, following the principle of self-determination, Muslim schools were free to operate in much of south eastern Soviet Russia.

Today we enjoy very limited forms of political democracy. We can elect MPs every five years or so but have no control over what the government does – like taking us to war.

Corporations can lay off thousands of workers, interest rates rise and fall, house prices soar beyond the pockets of the majority – and all at the whim of a tiny group of people in boardrooms and corporate headquarters.

The idea that workers might have any control over what they make or the services they provide is not even up for serious discussion.

Soviet democracy, by contrast, was based on factory, peasant and neighbourhood councils where mass assemblies elected representatives who could be removed if they did not properly represent those who had elected them.

In Petrograd in June and in October 1917 over 15,000 people were involved in elections to the factory committees and the soviet.

Russian workers had first thrown up soviets to organise the mass strike that boiled over into revolution in 1905. In February 1917 when Russia again erupted into revolution workers spontaneously re-introduced soviets.

The February revolution – sparked by women protesting over food prices – removed the Tsar who ruled Russia. For the next eight months combinations of liberal and centre left parties tried to govern Russia claiming to emulate Western parliamentary democracy.

At first the soviets were dominated by supporters of these ideas – after all parliamentary democracy seemed to promise a huge advance. But these parties did nothing to solve the single biggest political issue – Russia’s participation in the First World War.

The rank and file of the Petrograd working class demanded radical solutions. In factory after factory throughout the summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks were voted in as majorities in the soviets, including soldiers’ soviets where officers had originally dominated.

Membership of the Bolshevik party increased dramatically in 1917 – from 10,000 in February to 250,000 in October.

The greatest lie peddled about the October Revolution is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks crept out one night and grabbed power behind the backs of the Russian masses.

We should ask whether a working class which had been at the centre of two revolutions and was the most radical and innovative in Europe would allow anyone to take power behind their backs.

In fact 1917 saw a process of radicalisation from February to October as workers initially hoped those parties promising constitutional democracy would bring peace, give land to the peasants and solve the economic chaos. One by one each of those parties failed that test.

Already in July 1917 the working class of Petrograd had risen in revolt – an outburst that the Bolsheviks argued against because workers and peasants elsewhere had not yet reached that conclusion.

In August a military coup tried to destroy the revolution. The official government dithered. Workers, often led by Bolsheviks, took the initiative to defeat it.

By October the government that claimed to rule Russia had little or no support. The old elite despised them and wanted revenge. The Russian masses wanted bread, land and peace. This the Bolsheviks promised, adding the way in which this could be achieved: “all power to the soviets”.

The Bolshevik party acted under pressure from the masses and at the same time tried to win support for its strategy. It was a constant two way process.

That meant the party ditched some long held policies, for instance land nationalisation – instead giving land to the peasants. The party also had huge, often public debates, over issues including the necessity of making a revolution or over the peace treaty signed with Germany.

Far from a creating a dictatorship, the October Revolution was based on mass participation in the decisions of the new society – on a scale we can only imagine today.

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