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The Russian Revolution was democratic. Holding it back was not

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Issue 2574
Reading posters for the Constituent Assembly election
Reading posters for the Constituent Assembly election

Right wing histories of the Russian Revolution like to paint it as a coup by the Bolshevik Party and its leader Lenin.

Their writers refer in passing to the absence of democracy under the Tsar. But they accuse the Bolsheviks of creating a dictatorship that led automatically to the horrors of Stalinism.

Yet, as Lenin insisted, “To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people.”

Why did ‘soviets’ matter?
Why did ‘soviets’ matter?
  Read More

Lenin argued for launching insurrection on the basis that, “The majority of the people are on our side”.

The October Revolution wasn’t just carried out by a core of conspirators but by workers and soldiers all over Russia’s capital, Petrograd.

The revolution had already created its own democratic structures—the soviets, which were councils of workers’ and soldiers representatives.

After the summer of 1917 many soviets elected new, Bolshevik majorities. Workers voted for the party that stood for overthrowing the government.

After the October uprising elections were held to a new, nationwide Constituent Assembly. The Bolshevik-led Soviet government dissolved it in January 1918, something that’s held up as a central charge against them.

Before October, the demand for a Constituent Assembly was about creating a more democratic alternative to the existing power and taking the revolution forward.

But after October that power was gone. The new body could instead provide an alternative to soviet rule that those who wanted to remove all democracy from Russia could rally behind.

Places at the centre of the revolution—cities, the navy, and parts of the army—voted overwhelmingly for the Bolsheviks.

But most of Russia’s population was scattered in the countryside where the struggle was at a much lower pitch.

The peasant-oriented Social Revolutionaries (SRs) won 380 seats in the assembly, the Bolsheviks 168. But the results failed to reflect a rapidly changing reality. The SRs had already split.

One side supported the revolution and joined the Bolsheviks in a new coalition government. These Left SRs were by far the more popular.

Yet Right SRs dominated the party’s candidate lists—and used their Constituent Assembly majority to refuse to endorse Soviet rule.

But history waits for no one. By 1918 the imperialist powers encircled the revolution. The Constituent Assembly majority sought to compromise with the deadly enemies of the revolution.

It acted as a brake on the momentum of the revolution and worked to undermine it. Some even wanted to re-start the war with Germany.

It wasn’t just the Bolsheviks who saw the danger.

“As far as I am concerned, if it comes to that point, break up the Constituent Assembly with force,” Left SR Mark Natanson told Bolshevik Leon Trotsky.

Looking back in December 1919, Lenin said, “The country cannot be equal to the town under the historical conditions of this epoch. The town inevitably leads the country. The country inevitably follows the town.

“The only question is which class, of the “urban” classes, will succeed in leading the country, will cope with this task, and what forms will leadership by the town assume?”

Those who defended the Constituent Assembly suffered, as Lenin put it, from “the prejudice that the fundamental problem of the class struggle can be solved by voting.”

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution

1917 Timeline

18 September (1 October in the modern calendar)

  • Provisional Government leader Kerensky orders the Baltic Fleet sailors to dissolve their central committee. They refuse
  • The Soviet in Tashkent overthrows the local government. Kerensky retakes the city with force, provoking a general strike

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