The light of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the only successful workers’ insurrection in history so far, still burns bright almost 100 years on. Its story contains lessons for all those fighting for change today.
The revolution was not a single heroic act, nor was it a seamless linear process in which all workers developed as one.
Revolutions are not made by mindless robots but by masses of complicated individuals.
The driving force of the revolution was the working class, with all its differences and shades of opinion. Because of this it was a process that went backwards and forwards, with swift turns demanding quick responses.
The first revolution in Russia broke out in 1905. Then an absolute monarchy ruled over the vast empire. A massive peasant population lived in conditions of semi-starvation while land remained in the hands of the rich.
Poverty coexisted with huge economic changes. Enormous modern factories produced weapons and cloth, railways connected the quickly growing towns. The number of factory workers almost doubled from 1.4 million to 2.4 million between 1890 and 1900.
In 1904, a war with Japan ended in a humiliating defeat for Tsar Nicolas II. Anti-war feeling connected with workers’ anger at falling wages and appalling conditions.
In the city of St Petersburg in January 1905, the priest Father Gapon led workers and peasants to petition the Tsar for help to improve their lives.
The Tsar had his troops fire on the demonstrators, murdering hundreds.
The country rose in rage. A massive strike wave broke out. Meetings discussed tactics and political ideas.
In a few months, workers used to bowing to authority began to challenge long-held ideas and demand equality.
The mass strike brought the fights for economic rights and political representation together into a concentrated challenge to Tsarism.
The revolution dramatically illustrated the power of workers in struggle. Its momentum swept aside barriers between workers in different jobs and different towns.
It saw the creation of the first democratic organisation of the entire working class—workers’ councils or “soviets” in Russian.
Similar organisations, which have the potential to run society in the interests of the majority, have emerged in every subsequent revolution in history.The Bolshevik and Menshevik socialist parties played key roles in 1905.
Massive strides were taken in a few months—ideas changed and workers glimpsed their own ability to run society. But the strikes alone could not beat the state and the action crumbled.
After 1905, repression followed the brief taste of freedom. But the taste was not forgotten.
Twelve years later in 1917 the same elements—war, the mass strike, peasant and national revolts—came together again much more powerfully to overthrow Tsarism.
This didn’t explode from nowhere. The period before the First World War was marked with huge strikes. The outbreak of war broke that militancy, but rising food prices and carnage at the front provoked more protests and strikes.
In February 1917 anger boiled over with the introduction of rationing.
Thousands of women, including factory workers, surged onto the streets.
Soldiers refused their officers’ orders to fire on the rioters, instead marching with them to the Tsarist parliament shouting “Bread”, “Down with the Tsar” and “Stop the war”.
Hundreds of thousands struck and huge armies of demonstrators clashed with those troops who remained loyal to the regime. Within 48 hours workers had armed themselves and regiments of soldiers began to desert to their side.
The Tsar was overthrown and replaced by a provisional government. This consisted mainly of industrialists who wanted to make Russian capitalism more effective.
Alexander Kerensky, of the Social Revolutionary party of peasants and soldiers, joined the government to give it a left wing gloss.
The February revolution also gave workers a sense of their own strength. Within weeks they had again set up democratically-elected soviets across Russia.
Factory workers tore up rulebooks and contracts, and threw out foremen—determined that the new political order be matched by a new regime in the workplaces.
The state apparatus was dismantled. Workers’ militias replaced the police.
The soviets went beyond addressing questions of wages and conditions.
They took on a political role and people’s consciousness took a huge leap forward. These democratic organisations were the embryo of workers’ control of the whole of society.
The existence of the soviets and the provisional government meant that there were two powers in Russian society, uneasily balanced.
The Menshevik leadership of the soviets were nervous about taking power and supported the government.
The compromise between the soviets and the government was partly due to the Mensheviks, who believed that the revolution could not go beyond establishing a parliamentary democracy dominated by the bosses.
But it was also a reflection of the uneven consciousness in the working class.
The soviets were organically connected to this class, sensitive to the feelings and opinions of the majority.
A minority of the class actively participated in the revolution’s street fighting. But millions were drawn into the revolution and supported it, without necessarily distinguishing between one set of socialists and another.
Workers elected those who opposed the monarchy and the capitalists. Many looked to the Mensheviks, who spoke in favour of democratic revolution.
The Bolshevik Party was an organic part of the revolution. The best militants in every workplace who streamed onto the streets, bringing thousands behind them, were often members or supporters of the party.
Disillusion in the provisional government grew as the economic situation worsened, the war continued and peasants’ seizure of land was opposed.
In addition, workers became suspicious of the Mensheviks, who entered the government to prop it up. So, as support swung from the provisional government towards the soviets it also moved within the soviets from the Mensheviks towards the Bolsheviks.
It was the only party that argued for overthrowing the government and all power to the soviets.
The revolution continued to unfold. In July, anger and frustration erupted into an armed demonstration demanding that the Menshevik leaders of the soviets take power.
Despite the mood to overthrow the government, the Bolsheviks called for patience. Its leader Vladimir Lenin was concerned that the majority of the working class was not aware enough of the need to hold power in the face of counter-revolution. This could lead to a bloody defeat.
The reaction against the Bolsheviks was vicious, with a witch-hunt launched against the party.
The ruling class was worried. The right wing general Kornilov launched an attempted coup in August to destroy the soviets and the government.
The Bolsheviks mobilised the masses to defend Kerensky, who was now the prime minister.
People sprang into action to defend the revolution. Rail workers tore up tracks to hold back the invading army while telegraphers intercepted Kornilov’s orders. The coup attempt fell apart and support for the provisional government haemorrhaged.
At the end of August the Bolsheviks won leadership of the soviet in Petrograd, formerly St Petersburg.
As the Bolsheviks won more support, the party pushed for the soviets to seize power. In October, the storming of the Winter Palace, the government headquarters, was carried out with very little violence, since the majority of the working masses fully supported the soviets’ Bolshevik leadership.
That support was the result of “a cautious and painful development of consciousness” by millions of workers.
By October, workers had tried everything else. Crucially, the coup attempt had made the stakes clear—go forward or be smashed. The lesson of 1905 had been learned.
The Bolsheviks were decisive in October. Without a party constantly raising the level of the most advanced sections of the class, socialist revolution would not have been possible.
But that did not mean the party substituted itself for the class.
The party did not make the revolution, but helped the working class to overcome its fragmentation and unevenness and see the connections between its day-to-day struggles and the potential to end capitalism.
The Bolshevik slogans “Bread, peace and land” and “All power to the soviets” articulated the demands of the most militant workers and pulled millions more behind them.
The revolution remains a source of inspiration to us today, despite the Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1920s that destroyed all the gains.
The long process of the 1917 revolution was a necessary one. The experience of living under capitalism means that not all workers are at the same point at the same time.
Whether workers’ action breaks through to a revolutionary challenge to capitalism depends on the ability of the class to overcome that unevenness.
As Karl Marx explained, “Revolution is necessary, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
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