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Workers needed to seize power in 1917 or risk defeat

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Some critics argue that the Russian Revolution was ‘premature’—but there was no time to lose
Issue 2581
A poster from the Hungarian Soviet Republic 1919
A poster from the Hungarian Soviet Republic 1919

Russia was a backward, rural country with a small working class. But Vladimir Lenin and the revolutionary Bolshevik party were right to argue for the working class to seize power in October 1917.

The choice was between right wing dictatorship or socialist revolution.

The Provisional Government, which had replaced the Tsarist dictatorship in February, was rapidly losing credibility and control. Growing numbers of workers and peasants were disillusioned with its inability to meet their demand for peace.

While the Provisional Government was formally in charge, the soviets (workers’ councils) were increasingly running things. And the old forces of reaction, the military leadership, were determined to put an end to this revolutionary situation.

If the soviets hadn’t taken power, the right would have crushed them and all of the working class’s gains.

But the Bolsheviks also understood that it would have to be part of an international revolt to ultimately succeed. As leading revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued, “Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the West or the capitalists of all countries will stifle our struggle.”

This wasn’t cooked up to justify the revolution when things got tough.

Trotsky had argued in 1905 that the “working class of Russia cannot remain in power” after a revolution “without the direct state of support of the European working class”.

Most socialists argued that Russia first needed a “bourgeois revolution” to let capitalism develop. But Trotsky understood that while Russia was backward, it had to be seen in an international context.

1917 - when workers shook the world
1917 – when workers shook the world
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Capitalism was booming in cities such as Petrograd and because of this a minority of the population—workers—could bring the economy grinding to a halt.

While the Russian working class was small, its social weight and potential power was disproportionate to its size.

But its size also meant that the working class needed the much larger peasantry, to carry through the revolution.

Hope of an international response to the Russian Revolution wasn’t a pipe dream. Across the world there were movements, including the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and the 1918 Kiel sailors mutiny in Germany.

Communists and Socialists were heading up the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

The revolutionary wave spread across Germany—and forced the Kaiser to abdicate and his empire out of the war.

In Ireland, Germany and other countries there were conditions for revolution.

But crucially there weren’t revolutionary socialist parties, like the Bolsheviks, that could give leadership to the working class.

This didn’t make their failure inevitable.

By setting up the Third International, to bring together revolutionaries from across the world, the Bolsheviks managed to tear away workers away from the social democratic parties. From France to Germany hundreds of thousands joined the newly established Communist Parties.

And the revolutionary wave didn’t disappear in 1919. In Germany, a general strike defeated a military coup attempt in 1920 and showed the potential power of the working class.

Even as the revolutionary wave in Europe subsided, the Bolsheviks looked to people in its colonies as allies against imperialism.

Those who dare don’t always win. But those revolutionaries who don’t dare are doomed to disappointment and surrendering their principles to capitalism.

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

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