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How do you deal with debate during a revolution?

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Issue 2558
An assembly of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917
An assembly of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917

Right wingers and liberals claim that Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks set up a brutal dictatorship after the October Revolution in 1917—and eliminated dissent, debate and minority rights.

Yet open debate was central to the Bolsheviks’ form of organisation—democratic centralism.

There were many sharp arguments. In April 1917 frenzied discussion about whether to support or organise against the Provisional Government emerged after the February Revolution.

Bolshevik leader Lenin was initially in a small minority. He had to publish his views in the party’s newspaper under his own name. Another Bolshevik leader responded to point out that Lenin’s views were not those of the paper’s editors or the majority of the party’s Central Committee.

Nearly all major debates from 1917 to 1921 were carried out in public, whether the Brest-Litovsk treaty that ended the war with Germany or arguments over the role of trade unions in 1920-21.

During the Brest-Litovsk arguments Nikolai Bukharin and the “Left Communists” openly opposed the majority and brought out 15 issues of an opposition journal.

The government itself was not a one-party state.

After October Lenin became chair of the Council of People’s Commissars, a body accountable to the soviets—workers’ councils. It didn’t include just Bolsheviks, but also Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SRs).

All this was taking place in the middle of a raging counter-revolutionary offensive waged by 14 invading imperialist armies, including the US and Britain, and the old Tsarist “White” forces.

After the October Revolution there was no breathing room. The working class that made the revolution was decimated fighting to defend it.

This hollowed out the soviets, and left the Bolsheviks in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy. As the towns starved the Red Army forcibly requisitioned grain from the countryside—a policy dubbed the “Red Terror”.

It was when Stalin triumphed in 1928 that all democracy was snuffed out. Lenin opposed Stalin from his deathbed

This wasn’t popular, but was a necessary response to the crisis caused by counter-revolutionary forces.

In response to the civil war the Petrograd Soviet—not the Bolsheviks—set up the All Russian Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counter Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). Felix Dzerzhinsky was appointed to head it precisely because he was a known opponent of repressive attacks.

It did pursue opponents of soviet rule, but didn’t have the powers of a secret police force.

The Left SRs left the government in March 1918 after Brest-Litovsk. They declared a revolt.

The Bolsheviks had to quickly crush the revolt, or see the fragile workers’ republic destroyed. But Left SR Maria Spiridonova, who led the revolt, was given a one year prison sentence and an immediate amnesty for her “previous services to the revolution”.

In 1920 the Workers’ Opposition faction was formed in response to these growing pressures on the revolution.

It argued that trade union and factory committees should run the economy, not the central state as was the case during the civil war. The faction’s programme was distributed throughout the Bolshevik party.

As the revolution was internationally isolated, democracy was restricted.

What was at first an unwelcome necessity became, for some, a model. It was when Stalin triumphed in 1928 that all democracy was snuffed out. Lenin opposed Stalin from his deathbed.

The Bolsheviks fought for working class democracy and socialism from below.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read our coverage at

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