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How the Russian Revolution was won

November 19, 2004 | Pages 10 and 11

THE STANDARD story we hear about the Russian Revolution of 1917 is that it was a coup.

We're told that a conspiratorial band of hardened revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks--following orders handed down from their leader, Lenin--coldly overcame all opposition to take power. Maybe the masses of Russian workers and peasants showed up on the streets a time or two, but they were largely dupes--a stage army manipulated by the Bolsheviks.

Oddly enough, this anti-Bolshevik version of history promoted most actively by right-wing ideologues has elements in common with the accounts of some who want to defend Lenin and the Bolsheviks. According to them as well, the Bolsheviks agreed on all important questions from the beginning of the revolution in February 1917--and they could depend on the infallible Lenin to plot their strategy until the seizure of power in a second revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October, which established a workers' state in Russia.

These claims hardened into the official ideology of the USSR after Joseph Stalin's rise to power in the mid-1920s--with worship of the flawless Lenin serving as a main prop to claims that Russia remained socialist long after a repressive hierarchical system had been re-imposed.

The real history of the Russian Revolution is different from both these versions--and can teach us a lot about both the potential for ordinary people to take action and the hope for a better world.

One of the best books to set the record straight is Alexander Rabinowitch's The Bolsheviks Come to Power, republished earlier this year by Haymarket Books and Pluto Press. Focused on events in the cradle of the revolution--the Russian capital of Petrograd, now known as St. Petersburg--Rabinowitch uses numerous documents, memoirs and historical accounts to show how the actions of masses of working people were the driving force in 1917.

In fact, some of the most important developments--for example, the initial protests that led to the overthrow of the dictatorial Tsar in February, and the defeat of a counterrevolutionary attack on Petrograd by Gen. Kornilov in August--were nearly spontaneous, and certainly weren't controlled by the Bolsheviks or any other party in Russia.

Likewise, the Bolsheviks were far from a regimented band of palace conspirators, but an organization with deep roots in Petrograd's factories and neighborhoods that thrived on debate. The party's most respected member, Lenin, found himself in a minority at several points in 1917.

Along with fellow Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, Lenin did play a decisive role at times--in persuading party members on some issue, or initiating specific strategies. But at other points, it was the initiative of other Bolsheviks, often at the factory and neighborhood level, that carried the day--and fortunately so on several occasions in 1917 where Lenin's or Trotsky's judgments proved wrong.

Most of all, the Russian Revolution is a story of ordinary people coming to life as they discovered their own potential for creating a truly democratic society, free from war, exploitation and oppression. ALAN MAASS tells how the Russian Revolution was won--with excerpts from Rabinowitch's book.

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THE OVERTHROW of Russia's Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917 wasn't planned out by Lenin. It was the spontaneous result of the accumulated hatred of the Russian people bursting out in mass demonstrations that paralyzed Petrograd and other cities. Within a matter of days, the once all-powerful regime was isolated, its army and security forces refusing orders to defend it--and the Tsar was forced to abdicate.

But the political questions presented by what came next couldn't be solved by spontaneous action.

Russia in 1917 was a society devastated by poverty and the slaughter of the First World War. Just a few years earlier, the start of the war had been accompanied by a patriotic frenzy, and the ranks of socialists committed to the principle of opposing imperialism--not only in Russia, but around the world--were reduced to a tiny few. But the horrors of the war, combined with famine and mass suffering as the regime imposed austerity to keep the war effort going, turned the tide.

At the end of February 1917, women workers from some of the main factories in Petrograd organized strikes and demonstrations to mark International Women's Day, and to demand an end to desperate food shortages. The actions spread quickly in heavily industrial areas of Petrograd like Vyborg, with more and more factories walking out.

Even the Bolsheviks--the most militant and committed to revolutionary socialism among several left-wing parties in Russia--were taken by surprise, though individual members, on their own initiative, played a central role in spreading the protests in the first days.

Usually, the Tsar could depend on his army--in particular, the brutal Cossacks--to repress any rebellion. But under the weight of the crisis, the army's discipline disintegrated--and with it, the foundation of Tsarism itself. In less than a week, the Tsar was gone, his regime replaced by a Provisional Government.

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WITHIN DAYS of the International Women's Day demonstrations, workers in Petrograd and other cities had followed the example of Russia's mass upheaval in 1905, and formed workers' councils--or "soviets" in Russian.

The soviets were a natural development of the struggle. Workers in individual factories had already formed committees to make decisions about participating in demonstrations, what to do at work and so on. These committees made links locally, sending representatives to larger councils representing the different districts of their city, and finally to a citywide soviet. Eventually, other groups in society--most importantly, soldiers and sailors in the Tsar's army--formed similar councils, and sent their representatives to the soviets.

Repeated in similar form around the world during other revolutionary struggles, even to this day, the soviets were the backbone of workers' power and remained in place throughout 1917.

But after the overthrow of the Tsar, the Russian parliament, known as the Duma, created a Provisional Government made up primarily of parties representing Russia's capitalists. The most hated figures of the Tsar's regime were excluded, but so were the radical parties representing Russia's workers and peasants.

Despite the reputation of a few as opponents of the Tsar, the government's new ministers were committed to restoring order in Russia's cities and the authority of factory owners over workers--and above all, to continuing Russia's war effort. So from the beginning, the power of the Provisional Government was on an unavoidable collision course with the power of the workers' councils--a situation of "dual power" that couldn't continue for long.

The July Days

Conditions in all of [the prisons] were a good deal less oppressive than in Tsarist days...Raskolnikov recalled that many of his guards at the Crosses [prison in Petrograd] were cautious toward, indeed even fearful of, "politicals." After all, following the February revolution, yesterday's high officials suddenly turned up in jail, while some of the previous inmates instantly became cabinet ministers. Prison personnel were naturally wary of such a turnabout happening again.

From The Bolsheviks Come to Power

At first, though, the workers' councils lacked the confidence to assert their authority against the Provisional Government. This was reflected in the makeup of representatives to the soviets, too. When the first national congress of soviets was convened, the Bolsheviks were a minority of delegates. The soviets' elected leadership, both locally and nationally, came from more moderate left parties like the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SR).

In fact, most leaders of the Bolshevik Party accepted that the only possible outcome of the February Revolution was already in place--a capitalist regime. When Lenin returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland, he shocked his comrades by demanding that the Bolsheviks reject cooperation with the Provisional Government--and commit themselves to a new revolution that would transfer power to the soviets. It took weeks of argument to convince other leading Bolsheviks--and some, like Lev Kamenev, one of the best-known party leaders after Lenin, in reality remained unconvinced until after October.

But what Lenin recognized was that the masses of workers, while they might not have the confidence to assert their own power now, had shown by their actions that they wouldn't tolerate for long a government that tried to continue policies of war and exploitation.

The conflict did re-emerge quickly. In mid-May, the Provisional Government's foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, wrote a secret statement to Russia's allies in the war against Germany, committing the new regime to the same war aims as the Tsar. When this document was revealed, Petrograd exploded in renewed demonstrations.

Milyukov and several other ministers resigned. In the resulting shakeup, leaders of the moderate Mensheviks and SRs were invited to join the Provisional Government, and accepted. Thus, the moderate socialist parties ended up in the position of trying to straddle a widening gap between the Provisional Government and the soviets--leaving the Bolsheviks as the sole major party standing wholly with the workers' councils.

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TENSIONS CONTINUED to build, especially after the Provisional Government launched a disastrous military offensive. By early July, anger against the government had reached a fever pitch among some sections of workers and soldiers. But the sentiment for action was uneven. In particular, the mood in Petrograd wasn't matched elsewhere.

This created a crisis for the Bolsheviks when a semi-organized armed uprising against the Provisional Government took place on July 4. Lenin and the party's Central Committee had been united in trying to restrain forces bent on immediate action, since support was so uncertain. The insurrection took them by surprise.

But it had been encouraged by some party members--especially soldiers in the Bolshevik military organization. Many of these were new recruits unused to the idea of party discipline, so it was only with great difficulty that Lenin and other party leaders were able to convince them that the time wasn't right and a retreat was necessary--a stark difference from the common portrayal of the Bolsheviks as always following orders from above.

Meanwhile, the government exploited the opportunity to lash out at the Bolsheviks. Newspapers were filled with slanderous attacks, and the party's offices were seized. Leading members like Trotsky and Kamenev were arrested. Lenin barely escaped the dragnet and fled to Finland.

Joining in the calls for a crackdown against the Bolsheviks as "threats to the revolution" were many leading Mensheviks and SRs--a further sign that the leaders of the moderate socialist parties, if not rank-and-file members, tended to side with the Provisional Government against the champions of soviet power when push came to shove.

The July Days gave momentum to the government--now led by Alexander Kerensky as its prime minister--and the right wing, forcing the Bolsheviks to readjust their strategies. But the impact wasn't devastating as party members at first feared.

After the initial outburst of anti-Bolshevik scapegoating, Alexander Rabinowitch writes, "the repressive measures adopted by the government, as well as the indiscriminate persecution of leftist leaders and the apparently increasing danger of counterrevolution served simply to increase resentment toward the Kerensky regime among the masses and stimulated them to unite more closely around the soviets in defense of the revolution."

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THIS INSTINCT to unite against any threat to the revolution was decisive in stopping Gen. Kornilov's march on Petrograd at the end of August.

Kornilov's defeat

Within hours after public announcement of the Kornilov emergency, alarm whistles were sounded in factories throughout Petrograd. Acting on their own, without instructions from higher authorities, workers reinforced security around plant buildings and grounds, and began to form fighting detachments. On August 28-29, long lines of workers could be seen in the factory districts, waiting to enroll in these detachments, referred to with increasing frequency as "Red Guards."

To help arm these recruits, personnel in the cannon shops at the Putilov factory speeded production of a variety of weapons, which were dispatched directly to the field without even a test-firing; metalworkers simply accompanied their products and adjusted the weapons on the spot.

From The Bolsheviks Come to Power

Kerensky had appointed Kornilov as commander in chief in mid-July, and hoped that the general would help him re-establish the government's authority. But the soviets and other popular organizations--as well as the Petrograd garrison of soldiers and sailors stationed in and around the capital--resisted all attempts to curb their power. Believing that Kerensky would never establish order, Kornilov planned a military offensive for the final days of August to occupy Petrograd, disperse the soviets and smash left-wing organizations.

Yet Kornilov's forces never even made it to the capital.

The response from workers and soldiers was immediate when word came of the pending attack. Ad hoc revolutionary committees to organize military defense had formed during earlier crises in 1917. Now, more than 240 sprouted up between August 27 and 30, many of them offshoots of local soviets in the cities, and even rural soviets. The most important was the Committee for Struggle in Petrograd, which had representatives from all the major left parties. It became--without anyone planning it--the national command post for combating the right.

Even more decisive, however, was the spontaneous action taken by organizations of workers and soldiers at every level--from the workplaces and barracks, to the citywide soviet. Without any agreed-upon plan, they prepared a defense of the city, committed resources to vital services, secured food supplies and dispatched agitators to "harangue" Kornilov's approaching troops--a tactic that succeeded in winning over even Cossacks and other feared army divisions to the revolution.

As Rabinowitch writes, "the decisive moments of the Kornilov emergency occurred so quickly that effective coordination of the campaign against the right, even in the Petrograd area, proved impossible. It was also unnecessary. Spurred by the news of Kornilov's attack, all political organizations to the left of the Kadets, every labor organization of any import, and solider and sailor committees at all levels immediately rose to fight against Kornilov. It would be difficult to find, in recent history, a more powerful, effective display of largely spontaneous and unified mass political action."

The response to Kornilov threat was largely uncoordinated, yet unified. But as Rabinowitch also points out, many of the people who led the way in mobilizing this response were veteran Bolsheviks--revolutionaries whose years of political training and experience in previous struggles had prepared them to take the initiative at the crucial moment.

Lenin was still hiding in Finland in August. By the time he learned of the Kornilov threat, it had been effectively defeated, and his urgent communications recommending a course of action arrived days after that. But the ultimate tribute to the years Lenin devoted to building the Bolshevik Party is that its members, with very little coordination, had responded almost exactly as he recommended when his letters arrived.

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THE DEFEAT of Kornilov saved the Kerensky government from the counterrevolution. But it was also a sign that his days were numbered.

It was widely known, at least in Petrograd, that the conflict between Kornilov and Kerensky had been preceded by negotiations and collaboration. As a result, Rabinowitch writes, Kornilov's plot appeared to be a conspiracy "against the revolution on the part of the military high command and Kerensky"--one defeated only thanks to the forces of the soviet.

Kerensky's increasingly frantic attempts to re-impose the authority of the government failed to win mass support.

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, only gained ground. By September, they had won majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, and were expected to dominate the upcoming second national congress of soviets, planned for the end of October.

But there were still obstacles to overcome before the seizure of power.

For one thing, there was resistance to the idea that the time had finally come to topple Kerensky and claim power for the workers' councils--especially among leaders of the party who feared a repeat of the July Days if an insurrection proved to be premature. Once again, Lenin was in a minority, and had to argue relentlessly to win a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee to make insurrection against Kerensky the "order of the day."

At the same time, the Bolsheviks nearly committed a colossal blunder at Lenin's insistence. Lenin envisioned the final uprising against the Kerensky regime as a Bolshevik operation that would claim state power in the name of the soviets. Trotsky, on the other hand, recognized that this wouldn't necessarily win the support of most workers and soldiers--whose loyalty lay not with the Bolsheviks as much as the soviets themselves.

As the newly elected chairman of the Petrograd soviet, he developed a strategy of using the authority of the workers councils to seize power.

On the eve

Lenin was unable to restrain himself further...[He] donned his wig and a battered cap and wrapped a bandage around his face. Then, violating a direct Central Committee ban on his movement for the second time in a month, accompanied by Eino Rakhhia, he set off for Smolny [the headquarters of the Petrograd Soviet].

The two traveled through the Vyborg District as far as the Finland Station in an almost empty streetcar, the frantic Lenin peppering the conductress with questions regarding late political developments; when Lenin discovered she was a leftist, he began filling her ears with practical advice on revolutionary action...

Finally, sometime before midnight, they safely reached their destination. Smolny upon Lenin's arrival looked like a military camp on the eve of battle...Neither Rakhia nor Lenin had proper passes. Initially denied admission, they managed to lose themselves in an incoming crowd, and so were able to squeeze by the guards.

From The Bolsheviks Come to Power

Trotsky and other Bolsheviks also resisted Lenin's urging to launch an uprising immediately. Instead, throughout September and October, they utilized any attempt by the Kerensky regime to challenge the soviets as an opportunity to assert the authority of the soviets over Kerensky.

The key moment came in late October, when the government announced plans to transfer most of the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison--by this point, as much the heart of the revolution as the factories of Vyborg--to the front. The Petrograd soviet's newly formed Military Revolutionary Committee sent its representatives, known as commissars, to every unit of the garrison and issued an order written by Trotsky: "No directives to the garrison not signed by the Military Revolutionary Committee should be considered valid."

Effectively, the soviet had taken control of the armed forces in Petrograd away from Kerensky--"disarming the Provisional Government without firing a shot," Rabinowitch writes. Thus, the insurrection that began in the early hours of October 25--with Red Guard detachments under the soviet's authority taking control of crucial power centers, such as the state bank, and besieging the Winter Palace, where Kerensky and his cabinet was holed up--was almost anti-climatic.

The next day, when the nationwide Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd, Trotsky and Lenin could announce that the old regime had been swept away--and the power of the workers' councils over Russia was now absolute.

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THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS that followed in the days and weeks after the October insurrection are memorable.

The new workers' state ended Russia's participation in the slaughter of the First World War. The oppressed nations of the Tsar's empire were given the right of self-determination. In a country notorious for anti-Semitic pogroms, Jews led the workers' councils of Russia's two biggest cities. Laws outlawing homosexuality were repealed. Abortion was legalized and made available on demand.

And these measures only scratch the surface of the more thorough-going experiments of the Russian Revolution--from workers' given control over their workplaces, to efforts made to make women truly equal and a part of politics, to a new flowering of art and culture.

The tragedy is that the revolution was immediately besieged--and defeated within a very short time. In the years after 1917, more than a dozen countries, including the United States. contributed troops to an invasion force that fought alongside the dregs of Tsarist society--ex-generals, aristocrats and assorted hangers-on--in a civil war to destroy the new workers' state.

The revolution survived this military assault, but only barely--and at a terrible price. By 1922, the working class--the class that had toppled the Tsar, created the soviets as a democratic expression of their power, defeated the Kornilov threat, and taken power away from the Provisional Government--was decimated, physically reduced to half its former size by the horrors of war and famine.

The heart of the Russian Revolution was destroyed--which made it possible for a class of bureaucrats, led by Joseph Stalin, to scramble to power on the ruins of the workers' state and re-impose a hierarchical society with much in common with Western-style capitalism.

Yet that shouldn't take away from the example set by the only socialist revolution to succeed in establishing a workers' state that survived for any length of time. Russian society came alive in the revolution of 1917--and showed us a glimpse of what a socialist future might look like.

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