One hundred years ago capitalism in Russia—which had only just struggled into existence—was already dying.
Within weeks the capitalist state would be demolished by the new and burgeoning power of organised workers, and finished off by the October Revolution.
The old system was about to be replaced by the new.
But in the months leading up to October the two powers existed together, interlocking but ultimately threatening to wipe each other out.
This type of situation can only exist in periods of profound revolutionary change. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described it as “dual power”.
Both powers were born of the same revolutionary struggle. A workers’ uprising in the Russian capital Petrograd—the 1917 February Revolution—overthrew the centuries-old rule of the Tsars.
But although that revolt was won by ordinary workers, the new official government was controlled by Russian capitalists.
Before February, Russia’s weak capitalist class had grown as part of the old Tsarist regime. But they exploited the Tsar’s downfall to set up their own state.
Yet at the same time—as in every great revolt—ordinary people set up their own organisations to wage struggle.
These were the soviets—mass councils of workers, peasants and soldiers.
Through the soviets ordinary people transformed society and for the first time had real control over the big decisions that affected their lives. So, as Lenin put it, there were in fact “two governments” in Petrograd.
The capitalist Provisional Government held state power. The other, the Petrograd Soviet, held “no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed workers and soldiers.”
For a while both powers existed alongside each other, and there was a strange relationship between the two.
The new capitalist government had been handed power by the revolutionary movement after February.
Yet this “official” capitalist government was weak, ineffective and constantly riven by crisis.
It could only exist as long as the rival power, the soviets, allowed it to. And it still had to appeal to the revolution for legitimacy.
Even Russia’s continued involvement in the First World War was justified by the government as in defence of the revolution.
Some socialists, such as the Menshevik party, thought they could straddle the two.
Yet this setup couldn’t last. Although both powers were “interlocking”, they represented two classes in society that are completely opposed to each other.
Both the capitalist government and the soviets were different forms of state power. But as Lenin explained, “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.”
The capitalist state exists to defend the interests of those at the top of society whose position is based on exploiting the larger working class. Its power ultimately lies in the tools it has—the police and the army—to repress workers.
The soviets’ state existed to defend the new society based on workers’ control.
To survive it had to defeat the capitalists’ attempt to crush it.
Capitalist bosses started trying to sabotage the revolution. And politicians in the capitalist government wanted to crush the soviets.
There had to be a final confrontation. That confrontation came in October.
This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution
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