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The only way is insurrection

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Issue 2578
Lenin addressing a rally in 1920
Lenin addressing a rally in 1920

Lenin called the state “an organ for the oppression of one class by another”. The insurrection in October 1917 in Russia showed that one class can beat another.

On the evening of 24 October armed workers occupied railway stations, the telephone exchange and the state bank.

The following day Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace. Inside was most of the Cabinet. It took a few hours with minimum fighting for it to fall.

The Provisional Government was not strong enough either to suppress the Soviets or to ignore them. It was compelled to lean on the Soviet majority.

Trotsky was right to persuade Lenin that the rising must be called in the name of the Soviets. These represented the different currents of the workers’ movement.

There were four anarchists on the Military Revolutionary Committee which organised the insurrection in Petrograd, for instance.

But was the insurrection necessary?

In October the choice was capitalist reaction and military dictatorship on the one hand, and workers’ power on the other.

It was the point at which the conflict between workers and capitalists had reached its crux.


On 24 October Lenin wrote to the members of the Bolshevik Central Committee. “The situation is utterly critical,” he said. “It is clearer than clear that now, already, putting off the insurrection is equivalent to its death.

“On the agenda now are questions that are decided not by conferences, not by congresses but exclusively by populations, by the mass, by the struggle of armed masses.”

The less radical parties had sought to end dual power between workers’ councils and the bosses by helping to create a solid bourgeois state.

This meant adopting ever more reactionary policies. It wasn’t a continuation of stability. It mean undermining the gains of the February revolution itself.

The other parties couldn’t stop the crisis that was driving workers to occupy factories and peasants to seize land. Prices rose by 2,300 percent between February and October and real wages fell by half.

The rate of bankruptcies and closures rocketed. Strikes alone were not enough to combat this level of social disintegration.


The choices became stark—do you restore the employers or give power to the soviets? Do you fight the war or not? Do peasants get the land? There couldn’t be any more compromises.

The crisis had led to a series of situations that in Lenin’s words were “more than a demonstration and less than a revolution”. By October a majority of workers backed all power to the Soviets.

Lenin’s pamphlet Marxism and Insurrection, circulated in thousands of copies, argued against coups and for insurrection with support from the masses.

The questions facing workers on the eve of insurrection are still critical questions that face our movement today.

What do you do when your movement from below runs up against the boundaries of what the capitalist system will allow. Who takes power when you challenge the system, and how?

There are many other examples of mass popular organisation that represent a new sort of political power.

What was specifically different about the Russian Revolution was that the taking of state power was carried out by the organised working class. In other circumstances, such as Germany in the following years, opportunities were missed and the revolution lost with horrific consequences.

Any movement towards self-organisation needs to break the power of the bosses by confronting them head on.

The lesson of October is that insurrection—decisive action against capitalism—works.

Read more: Russia 1917: Workers revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed
by Dave Sheery £12.99
Available from Bookmarks Bookshop online or 020 7637 1848

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