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Russia 1917: was it a revolution or a coup?

This article is over 20 years, 7 months old
The Russian Revolution took place 86 years ago this month. Critics claim that this historic event was merely a coup by the Bolshevik Party and its leader Vladimir Lenin. Mike Haynes, a socialist historian and author of many books about Russia, takes on
Issue 1874

The Russian Revolution began in February 1917 with an uprising that brought down the hated Tsar. By October a new government was founded led by the Bolsheviks. What happened?

The revolution was not a choice between a society in which everything was perfect, and a mad gamble on the future. The start of the revolution occurred during the First World War. The aim of the revolution was to end that war.

The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg famously said that people faced a choice between socialism and barbarism, a choice that she saw as flowing out of the war. A process began in February 1917 which created a wave of radicalisation that is difficult to appreciate. Immediately after the revolution everyone declared themselves to be a socialist of some kind. That created an environment in which all sorts of things seemed possible.

Some of the roads people took after the revolution are well known-the inspiration for artists, musicians and some writers. Of course some of the intellectuals of the old order were frightened out of their skins by what was going on but others were enormously inspired. What fascinates me is the more basic inspiration that occurred. One of the things I discovered was that even dentists were inspired to wonder whether they could have a different kind of dentistry in 1917!

What happened in February 1917 created not just a fantastic shift to the left in people’s political ideas but also an astonishing level of democratisation.

What form did that democracy take?

The democracy that emerged was based in factories and local communities. Workers would set up committees in individual workshops and factories. School teachers set up committees, school students set up committees, and there were even cases of committees of monks being set up in the monasteries. From these basic democratic institutions at the base of society there was an attempt to create soviets, or workers’ councils, which usually represented areas or towns. The most famous was the soviet in the capital, Petrograd.

You would have an election within your local community, school or factory, from which you would send representatives to the town soviet, rural soviet or regiment soviet.

Out of this coming together of representatives from local committees you began to see the build-up from the base of a new kind of democracy. This mass new institutional base for democracy really belies the idea that what happened in 1917 was based on the activities of a tiny number of people. It was based on one of the biggest explosions of popular democracy that we have ever seen anywhere in the world.

The workers’ councils, or soviets, became increasingly important in the run-up to October 1917. How did their role change?

In the first instance the soviets and workers’ committees had a primarily defensive role.

Workers were trying to make sure that things didn’t get worse and that they defended the gains that were made in February 1917. If you look at the demands made by these institutions, they combined three kinds of demands. Firstly there were material demands, for example an eight-hour day or better wages.

Secondly there were what I call dignity demands, which are very important. This was a society in which people were used to being pushed around and humiliated. Soldiers didn’t want to be treated like dirt. One of the things that workers demanded was the sacking of foremen who had humiliated them. There was a third level of demands, which were the political demands.

Initially these were not the most important. But as 1917 progressed workers realised that it would not be possible to achieve their material demands and a more dignified life without becoming more political. So politicisation in these organisations grew all the time.

What sort of organisation was the Bolshevik Party? In February 1917 it had around 10,000 members-how was it able to go on to lead the revolution in October?

There was a general radicalisation in 1917 which meant that more people became interested in politics. They swung from a generally left wing politics to an even more extreme left wing politics. The Bolsheviks were one of the main beneficiaries of this.

At the beginning of the revolution there were three other important political forces, which argued that the revolution had to limit itself. One of them was the liberals, who organised in a party called the Kadets. Essentially they represented the capitalists.

The second force was the Socialist Revolutionaries, a party that grew explosively. They combined left wing intellectuals, some workers, soldiers and large numbers of peasants. The third force was the Mensheviks, who were a much more authentically left wing group based among workers. But they also had a very conservative expectation of how far the revolution could go.

They all wanted to stop at the very limited democratic rights achieved after the February Revolution, and to continue fighting the First World War.

But it became obvious that you couldn’t keep fighting the war without Russian society falling apart, and you couldn’t ‘stabilise’ the political situation without making a choice between the people at the bottom and those at the top. So political support started to drift away from these organisations. The Bolshevik Party began to grow fantastically quickly, especially during the summer and early autumn of 1917.

The wider process of democratisation was so radical that often the Bolsheviks were chasing after it. One of the things that enabled them to succeed was that they were a flexible and democratic party, more than any other party.

So they were able to reflect the mass democratisation from below and the confidence that ordinary people came to have in 1917. The Socialist Revolutionaries’ party split.

The people that had led it began to push out the left. The majority split away to form the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. That was crucial because, although the Bolsheviks led the revolution, they had the Left Socialist Revolutionaries on their side.

Given this explosion of democracy, radical ideas and the gains of the October 1917 Revolution, how was Stalin able to come to power in 1928-9?

The Bolsheviks and their allies wanted to create a revolution that would spread internationally. They knew in 1917 that if Russia was left isolated it could not survive.

There were echoes of the Russian Revolution around Europe in 1918 and 1919. But Western socialists did not link up with the revolutionary democracy of Russia. So the Western states were able to turn on Russia to crush it in the civil war that followed the revolution.

This created a huge military strain between 1918 and 1921. It also created economic chaos, which destroyed a large part of the factory life and urban life. So the October Revolution made it possible for people to use the power they had won to put into practice some of the ideas flowing out of the revolution. But the chaos of the civil war undercut the basis for this to happen. An enormous gap opened up between the intellectual inspiration of the revolution and the horrible reality that existed.

There was a wonderful example from a children’s theatre. In it there was a famous animal trainer who wanted children to understand what the revolution was about. He was used to training animals to perform in plays. After the revolution he turned the animals which had traditionally played the role of cowards into heroes.

The idea was that the children could understand that roles are not fixed and can be changed. The tragedy was that with people starving it was hard to keep the animals alive and the temptation must have been to eat them.

Another consequence of the civil war was that the working class itself began to disappear-they simply could not survive in the towns. The mass democracy that had existed in Russia in 1917 was based on large numbers of workers.

By 1921 the civil war had created a situation in which the factories and towns had been drained of those workers, so there was no longer a working class to be democratic. Out of this process you see the beginnings of the degeneration of the revolution.

It took a few years for this to become complete. Stalin came to power in 1928-9. But the origins of his rise to power are to be found in the fact that the workers in the factories in 1917 were no longer there in 1921.

The revolution came from the strength of revolt from below. Stalin’s rise came from the destruction of that strength and confidence.

Many people argue that Lenin led to Stalin. What do you think about that?

There was a complete break between them. On the left there have always been those who wanted to hedge their bets. While Stalin was in power the Communist parties took the position that there was a direct continuity, which was what Stalin himself said.

The more critical people on the left recognised there were elements of discontinuity, but didn’t want to say that Stalin had overturned everything. I think we want to make it clear that Stalin did overturn everything.

He destroyed what people fought for in 1917 and he physically liquidated many of the people who fought in 1917 because they carried the memory of the revolution. At the beginning of the 1930s everything is turned on its head and Stalin destroys any relation with what had happened in 1917.

Is the Russian Revolution relevant to people in the anti-capitalist movement today?

We have to rediscover the Russian Revolution. It is a tremendous inspiration because of the democratisation that I talked about. That democratisation has, to an extent, been repeated throughout the 20th century. It is being repeated at the start of the 21st century as people protest about the World Bank, economic crises and so on.

What happened in 1917 was a sustained shift to the left and a sustained development of new ways of organising popular power from below. We can learn both from negative and the positive things that historians have tried to wash over.

Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000, £12.

A Century of State Murder, by Mike Haynes and Rumy Husan, £15.99.

Available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848.

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