How the stage was set for revolution

In the first installment in a series telling the history of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Alan Maass looks at the backdrop to the revolt against war, poverty and tyranny.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

THE RUSSIAN Revolution of 1917 is a reminder that the struggles which change the world often take place where they are not expected--where the possibilities of success seem least favorable.

The Russia of the Tsars was one of history's most terrible dictatorships. The vast majority of Russians lived in impoverished conditions that were little changed from centuries before. All were subject to the iron authority of the Tsarist regime and the Russian nobility. Various half-hearted attempts to reform the system from above--or, by contrast, to force change through failed assassination plots--had little if any effect on the lives of most Russians.

Yet this Russia was the setting for a revolution that gave us the only lasting glimpse so far of what a future socialist society--in which the mass of workers collectively and democratically control society--will look like.

The Russian Revolution is the story of millions of people making history--"the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of determining their own destiny," in the words of the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky.

Russia's experiment in workers' power lasted only a few short years. The counterrevolutionary regime built on its ruins recreated all the oppressions of the old Tsarist system--and justified them with the rhetoric of socialism. Nevertheless, the accomplishments of the revolution--in toppling one of the world's cruelest tyrants, in creating the first organs of mass workers' democracy, in bringing alive the talents and hopes of a whole society--remain a source of inspiration today.

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RUSSIA'S TSARS were the equals of their royal counterparts elsewhere in terms of extravagance and arrogance. But in every other way, Russia was the most backward nation in Europe.

Four-fifths of the population lived as peasants, tied to the land and subservient to the feudal nobility. At the turn of the 20th century, per capita income in the U.S. was eight to 10 times higher than in Russia.

The Tsar and his nobles ruled this society with an iron grip and imagined themselves a kind of imperial master race. Their empire reached from the edge of Europe straight across Asia--"an immense tract of conquests within which 20 enslaved nations are penned," wrote the anarchist Elisee Reclus.

Tsarist Russia was notoriously anti-Semitic. "It is possible to arrange any kind of pogrom," a police official told a supervisor, "involving 10 people if you like, or 10,000."

In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky illustrated the corruption of the old order by describing Tsar Nicholas II himself:

This dim, equable and "well-bred" man was cruel--not with the active cruelty of Ivan the Terrible or of Peter, in the pursuit of historic aims...but with the cowardly cruelty of the late born, frightened at his own doom. At the very dawn of his reign Nicholas praised the Phanagoritsy regiment as "fine fellows" for shooting down workers. He always "read with satisfaction" how they flogged with whips the bob-haired girl-students, or cracked the heads of defenseless people during Jewish pogroms...This "charmer," without will, without aim, without imagination, was more awful than all the tyrants of ancient and modern history.

To underline the point, Trotsky quotes the Tsar's personal diary, in which hugely important but barely acknowledged events alternate with vapid descriptions of country life. "Very busy morning," reads one entry. "A storm came up, and it was very muggy. We walked together. Received Goremykin. Signed a decree dissolving the Duma [Russian parliament]! Dined with Olga and Petia."

But there was another face to Russia in these early years of the 20th century. Amid the economic stagnation and political decay of the old feudal order, the development of capitalism in Russia's cities--most of all, in the capital of Petrograd--was producing some of the most advanced conditions anywhere in the world.

Capitalism didn't emerge at the same incremental pace as it had in Western Europe, but at a technological and productive level that equaled or bettered the West. Thus, in 1914, in the U.S., 17.8 percent of the workforce was employed in the giant enterprises of 1,000 workers or more. In Russia, the figure was 41.4 percent. The Putilov metal works in Petrograd was the largest factory anywhere in the world, employing 30,000 workers in 1917.

This uneven and combined development, to use Trotsky's phrase, had a number of political consequences.

First, while the parasitic system of Tsarism at the top of society was overripe to be toppled and replaced by a more democratic system, the class that had led such revolutions in the West--the capitalist class--was weak, timid and backward. Russia's bourgeoisie was tied in a thousand ways to the rule of international capital that financed it, and to its various arrangements and concessions with the Tsarist system.

At the same time, because of the development of highly advanced islands of capitalism in the cities, the Russian working class, while still a minority in society as a whole, was relatively more advanced in terms of class organization--and, consequently, in its consciousness. The working class was that much more prepared to take the lead in the struggle against the Tsarist system.

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RUSSIA'S CITIES were a tinder box of grievances waiting to be lit.

In the new factories, hours were long, and pay was low. "A Russian worker's life, even in St. Petersburg, was extraordinary drab and poor," a socialist historian later wrote. "The workman himself had as his only entertainment the pub and the beerhouse; his family had nothing at all."

In 1904, the Tsar launched a disastrous war against Japan that soon caused shortages and further destitution.

With the situation coming to a head, workers first turned not to Russia's socialists, but to a young priest, Father Gapon, whose Assembly of Russian Factory and Plant Workers was legal and recognized by the regime.

In January 1905, Gapon organized a march to the Winter Palace to plead with the Tsar--considered by most to be benevolent, but misguided by "bad advisers"--for reforms. The Tsar's soldiers opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, killing more than 1,000 workers and their families.

The massacre--known as Bloody Sunday--sparked an explosion of mass strikes. Factory owners and managers were forced by the scale of the upheaval to agree to some of the concessions the demonstrators had asked of the Tsar.

The revolt spread to the countryside. Peasants burned down 2,000 landlords' estates, and redistributed their stockpiles among themselves. Russian soldiers rebelled against the losing war against Japan. In the first naval mutiny, sailors on the battleship Potemkin seized their vessel for the side of the revolution.

The regime turned to its tried-and-true tactic of scapegoating Jews, unleashing the Black Hundreds gangs that specialized in pogroms. The attacks--carried out with the complicity of government officials--spread over time, but not to areas where the workers and soldiers revolt was strongest. In Petrograd, for example, there was no pogrom because of counter-measures taken by workers organizations, which formed armed militias against the Black Hundreds.

The Tsar and his regime tried to regain control of the situation by making concessions. They agreed to the formation of a Duma, or parliament, though it would have no real power and wouldn't represent workers or peasants. In August, the government settled the disastrous war.

Still, the workers' rebellion continued--culminating in a general strike in October that had begun with typesetters in Moscow, and spread to Petrograd and then other cities via the railroad system.

The Tsar was compelled now to promise a constitution. Only after another month of further battles was the regime confident enough to try to arrest workers' leaders and suppress the rebellion.

The regime finally regained control, but not before the revolution had given rise to the soviet, or workers' council--the first appearance of new power counterposed to the old order, through which the mass of workers could exercise their power.

The soviets grew out of councils formed to organize the struggle in workplaces. Representatives of factories were elected to meet and make decisions on a neighborhood and then citywide basis.

Trotsky--elected president of the Petrograd soviet at age 26--described how the workers' council system concentrated all the forces of the revolution:

It was an organization which was authoritative, and yet had no traditions; which would immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control--and, most of all, which could be brought out from underground within 24 hours.

Retaliation against those who participated in the 1905 rebellions took its toll on the movement. Russia's revolutionaries in the Bolshevik Party, which played an important role throughout 1905, would refer to the rest of the decade as the "years of reaction." Nevertheless, the Bolshevik leader Lenin's assessment was "just wait. 1905 will come again. That is how the workers look at things."

1905 did come again, and more quickly than many expected--just over a decade later. Another imperialist war--this time, the First World War--initially greeted with patriotic enthusiasm, again brought frustration with desperate conditions to a head.

And once again, it was the workers of Petrograd who took the lead. On International Women's Day in 1917, they left their jobs to participate in spontaneous demonstrations against food shortages and the war--in what became the first day of the revolution.

This article first appeared in the February 2, 2007 edition of Socialist Worker.