The First World War placed an enormous strain on Tsarist Russia.
The war was going badly, food shortages multiplied, and the establishment was plunged into deep crisis.
Millions of peasants were conscripted – suddenly exposing them to the ideas of class conscious workers. And unlike in most other countries, the main socialist party – the Bolsheviks – did not capitulate to nationalism, but opposed the war from the start.
In February 1917, revolution broke out. On international women’s day, women workers in Russia’s capital Petrograd struck and demonstrated against bread shortages.
They were dispersed by police. Twice as many struck the next day. The movement spread like wildfire. Soldiers began to mutiny rather than fire on demonstrators, and within a week the Tsar, Russia’s dictator, had been forced to abdicate.
This first 1917 revolution was spontaneous – no theory could have predicted exactly when the dam would break and the tide of accumulated anger of Russia’s workers and soldiers would sweep away the Tsarist autocracy. The revolution also defied theory, even that of the Bolsheviks, for it created not one new power, but two.
Formally, power had passed from the Tsar to the Duma (parliament) and its provisional government dominated by the liberal capitalist Cadet Party – just as all Marxists had assumed it would.
But in reality, power was shared with of the soviets – directly elected councils of workers and soldiers – that had sprung up across Russia.
Nothing could happen in Petrograd – and order certainly couldn’t be maintained – without the moral weight of the soviet.
The moderate Marxist Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (a party orientated on the peasantry) held the majority in the Petrograd Soviet, largely as a result of the under-representation of the large workplaces where the Bolsheviks were strongest.
The provisional government continued to fight the war and stalled on distribution of land. It was dominated by capitalists hostile to the economic demands of the workers.
It did not satisfy those millions who had now had a taste of their collective power. The Mensheviks argued against making “unreasonable demands”.
In previous columns, we have seen how Lenin’s conception of the party differed from the Mensheviks. Lenin wanted a party that intervened in the movement, they wanted to reflect the movement.
Most who participated in the February revolution simply wanted a better government – they had never considered that they themselves could run the country. But the soviets were, Lenin argued, an embryonic workers’ government.
The movement was dominated by ideas supporting the rule of the provisional government, but the logical conclusion of the activities of those involved was that the workers themselves could rule. By reflecting the movement in theory, the Mensheviks were actually holding back the movement in practice.
Lenin was still in exile in February and the majority of Bolshevik leaders fell in behind the Mensheviks.
Lenin developed a starkly different analysis, culminating in his April Theses. Most Russians wanted bread, peace and land. No capitalist government would give them this.
It could only be won by “arming the proletariat, and strengthening, extending and developing the role, significance and power of the soviets”.
Millions of workers still felt the provisional government was their own. Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks had to “patiently explain” how the only way to get “bread, peace and land” was “all power to the soviets”.
Lenin had to fight to win the party over to his ideas. His arguments didn’t conform to the schema of the “old Bolsheviks”, but they chimed perfectly with the experiences of rank and file members and of workers beyond the ranks of the party.
Just as in the 1905 revolution, Lenin had to go “over the heads” of the committeemen straight to those on the frontline of the mass strikes and revolution.
Some argue that the essence of Bolshevism is a centralised adherence to a dogmatic Marxism.
But time and again what it really meant was the ability of Lenin to quickly rearm the party politically to deal with rapid changes in circumstance and overcome the conservative inertia generated by the party structures.
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