THIS YEAR is the 85th anniversary of one of the most important and uplifting events of the 20th century. But you wouldn’t know that from any of the papers or TV. The revolution in Russia in 1917 is an event hated by people who defend the system we live in. That’s because the mass of people took their lives into their own hands. Historians who are hostile claim it was a conspiracy by a small bunch of revolutionaries called the Bolsheviks.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The social crisis which existed at that time meant working people could not go on in the same way. People who a few years earlier would have turned their backs scornfully on someone selling a Bolshevik newspaper now began to realise something different. To meet the basic demands of the people – food for workers in the towns, handing over the land to the peasants, an immediate end to war – there was going to have to be a revolution.
The months of growing revolt came to a head early on the morning of 7 November (25 October in the old calendar) Groups of workers, sometimes accompanied by sailors who had gone over to the revolution, occupied railway stations, power stations, ammunition dumps, banks, telephone exchanges and printshops throughout Petrograd. Even those in the front line of defending the old system were overcome by the popular revolt.
An American journalist, Albert Rhys Williams, described the reaction of the troops whose job was to stop any rebellion. They were called the White Guards. ‘They fling away caps, belts and swords. Insignia of honour now become badges of shame and death,’ said Williams. ‘An officer coming upon a greasy blouse hanging on a peg becomes a maniac with joy.
‘A captain finding the apron of a cook puts it on, plunges his arms in flour and, already white from terror, becomes the whitest White Guard in all Russia.’ The only place that held out against the revolution was the Winter Palace, the residence of the former Tsar.
It lasted until the day’s end. The people had to threaten it with cannon before it too surrendered. There was more prolonged fighting in Moscow, but the whole country was soon in the hands of the revolutionaries.
The day following the Petrograd rising the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin addressed a congress with delegates from the workers’ committees that had been set up in Russia. They were called soviets. The American journalist John Reed described the ‘thundering wave of cheers’ that greeted this leader ‘dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been.’
News of the revolution spread rapidly. There was no television to convey the images of workers’ power. The world’s press invented lies and distortions, with the honourable exception of a few honest and courageous journalists like John Reed. But the message got through.
Harry McShane, a militant engineering worker in Glasgow, recalled: ‘When Lenin called for ‘all power for the soviets’, it meant that they had discovered a system of working class self government through which the old crowd could be completely destroyed. We began now to realise what was meant by revolution. We had only known working class revolt. Now we could talk about working class power.’
At the start of 1917 Russia had been at war for two and a half years. The corrupt and incompetent government of the Tsar (emperor) could no longer cope with the pressures of fighting against countries that were more economically developed.
The army was demoralised, the civilian population hungry and angry. Sweeping change was inevitable. In February a series of strikes broke out. At this point the ordinary workers were far ahead of the organised revolutionaries. A group of women textile workers struck in Petrograd, although the local Bolshevik committee advised them not to. Leon Trotsky, a leading revolutionary, noted that the women were much bolder than the men.
As the strikes turned into a popular rising, the Tsar fled. A new Provisional Government was set up, which thought the answer to Russia’s problems was Western-style parliamentary democracy. But workers knew that parliamentary debates would not put bread in their stomachs. They set up soviets – committees of workers’ delegates. In the larger factories workers’ committees challenged the power of the managers.
In effect there were now two governments. One claimed to run the country through the channels of the old administration, while the other asserted its control over the workplaces and the streets. This situation was what Marxists have referred to as ‘dual power’. Having just made one revolution, workers did not expect to have to make another one.
To begin with they turned to the more moderate socialist parties, which promised to put pressure on the new Provisional Government. But the new rulers could not satisfy the basic demands of the people. The whole structure of society continued to disintegrate. During the year no less than two million soldiers deserted from the army. Whole units left at a time, storming trains, climbing on the roofs and relieving themselves through the ventilators onto the rich in the compartments below. They took back a new revolutionary spirit into the villages. Local landowners’ houses were attacked and destroyed.
The question was, who would run society? It was a growing battle between the old landowners and factory bosses, with the forces of the state behind them, and the mass of angry workers. In some factories workers would simply dump the manager in a wheelbarrow and push him out of the gate.
When right wing army officers tried to stage a coup, workers resisted. Railway employees diverted trains carrying those soldiers and helped to sabotage the coup attempt. There were three main socialist parties at that time. The most militant of them, the Bolshevik Party, emerged as the dominant one. At the beginning of the year it had around 4,000 members – by the end, perhaps a quarter of a million.
Nobody knew the exact figures. Its members had more important things to do than keep membership lists! In one city the party grew from ten members to 5,000. By July the Bolsheviks had 41 papers and journals. Yet they were under constant persecution, with arrests and imprisonment of leading members. There was no danger that people were joining to advance their own careers. The Bolsheviks were not a tight-knit group who all jumped when Lenin told them to. Lenin had to fight hard to persuade the party’s leadership, the central committee, that it was possible to start preparing to take power. These were not discussions behind closed doors. On the streets workers were reading Lenin’s pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? Lenin was no infallible dictator. He too got things wrong and had to be corrected by his comrades.
To begin with he wanted to call the insurrection in the name of the party. It would have been a disaster, as many workers and soldiers still did not identify themselves with the Bolsheviks.
It took Trotsky to persuade him that the rising must be called in the name of the soviets, which represented the different currents of the workers’ movement. The Bolsheviks were happy to work with other political groups which shared their main objectives. There were four anarchists on the Military Revolutionary Committee which organised the insurrection in Petrograd.
But when the Provisional Government made plans in October to try to liquidise the threat posed by the growing revolutionary movement, the value of a centralised party that could respond rapidly and coordinate action proved itself. The Provisional Government collapsed within hours. Its leader, Kerensky, took to his heels.
In the early 1960s he could be seen in the bar of the Oxford University Union, lamenting a wasted life. The revolution was an inspiration to working people all over the world. The Western powers hastened to end the First World War so that they could turn on their common enemy.
Over a dozen foreign armies invaded Russia and joined up with reactionaries inside Russia in a civil war. Germany, a major industrial power at the time, had looked ripe for revolution between 1919 and 1923.
But the Communist Party, set up after the revolution in Russia, lacked the experience, political skill and determination of the Bolsheviks. The revolution in Germany was aborted. Eventually one of the Bolshevik leaders who had played a most undistinguished role in 1917, Stalin, rose to the top.
He put most of his former comrades to death, and established a brutal, corrupt regime which dragged the very name of communism into the mud. But for those who continue to believe in genuine workers’ power and socialism, October 1917 remains a model of what a revolution looks like. However short the triumph, it was an example of when millions of ordinary working people took control of their own lives.
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward