The year 2007 marks nine decades since the greatest event of the 20th century and, arguably, of all human history. On 7th November 1917 (25th October, Old Style), the workers, army units, and sailors of Petrograd rose in armed insurrection and captured the seat of the Russian Provisional Government – the Winter Palace. This act was a key moment in a revolutionary movement that was instrumental in shaping the whole of the 20th century, and beyond.
The tremendous impact of the Russian October Revolution was due to one irrefutable fact: the working class, for the first time in history, had captured state power and used it to overthrow the existing order and transform society and existing social relations. Nobody will ever be able to erase this powerful fact from the memory of humanity. The October Revolution was not artificially engineered by a clandestine terrorist organization as many historical revisionists have attempted to claim; on the contrary, it was one of the most popular revolutions in history. The working class whole-heartedly supported it, as was shown by the courageous behavior of the Petrograd sailors and soldiers, that is, workers and peasants in uniform.
Of course, the October Revolution of 1917 was not totally without precedents; the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution of 1905 are well-known examples, but these were all short-lived. The Russian Revolution, however, was extremely successful in this regard. All power in the factories and workplaces was taken away from the bosses and appointed managers and passed into the hands of democratically elected local soviets (soviet being the Russian word for “council”). In turn, these were united into larger bodies of soviets, culminating up to the All-Russian Soviet. Thus, the flow of power in Russia, in the first years after the revolution, proceeded from the bottom up. Soviet officials were directly elected by the workers and were subject to immediate recall if they went against the interests of those who elected them.
Revolution was, indeed, the only way forward for Russia. Due to its belated development, Russia was in the same position as Latin America, Asia, and Africa are in today – its bourgeoisie willingly sold itself to Western foreign capital. The Russian capitalists were incapable of making their own revolution and acted as a fetter on their country’s development. The task of moving the country forward fell, instead, into the hands of the Russian workers.
The 1917 February Revolution brought down the hated Tsarist regime but was unable to go much further. The Provisional Government which came to power after the revolution, did not even proclaim a democratic republic, did not solve the land question, nor introduce political freedoms – all of which are the basic tasks of the national democratic revolution. Instead, from February to October, the Provisional Government only succeeded in destroying itself. During the February Revolution, its grave-digger already came into existence; alongside the “legal” Provisional Government, the real organ of popular power arose – the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. In the interim months between the February and October Revolutions – known as the period of “dual power” – the masses of Petrograd struggled with the Provisional Government. The masses were not yet organized enough to remove the Kerensky Provisional Government, which in turn did not have enough support to put down the revolutionary workers.
Russian society was becoming increasingly polarized. No bourgeois democracy was possible in Russia since the bourgeoisie did not want a democracy, but a dictatorship. Only two paths were possible for Russia: either a workers’ democracy, or a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie under the heel of the White generals. If the Bolsheviks had not taken power, the reformist Socialist Parties would have succeeded in preparing the way for a fascist general to take power instead.
Kornilov, a former tsarist officer, decided that Kerensky had let things go too far and with his “savage division”, took the road to Petrograd to restore “order” in the city. In vain did Kerensky appeal to the Russian bourgeoisie, who smugly smiled and prepared flowers for the would-be Russian Napoleon. They were a thousand times more inclined to sing “God Save the Tsar” rather than grant an ounce of freedom or income to the workers and peasants. Kerensky, with no one else to cry to, was compelled to turn to the soviets for protection, lest he lose his head. The soviets complied. They carried out a whole-scale arming of the Petrograd population and created detachments composed almost entirely of the factory workers. The soviets showered the advancing enemy with leaflets, calling on them to make peace with their brothers. Kornilov’s soldiers deserted with each mile they marched. He never made it to Petrograd. As soon as his army met the first workers’ divisions, the soldiers had had enough and Kornilov became a general without an army.
Kornliov’s coup failed. The Revolution was even so peaceful as to let him and other coup plotters, like General Krasnov, remain free. Later, all of them would repay the revolution for this mistake by becoming its bitter enemies. This shows that the revolution was not violent in 1917 but only became so as a result of the civil war when 21 foreign armies (including Canada) invaded Russian territory to support the anti-Bolshevik White Army. The responsibility for violence rests solely with the counter-revolution.
The enemies of the revolution aren’t shy in pouring calumnies over its head and one old lie is that October 25 was a militarily organized conspiracy carried out without the support of the masses. But if it was so simple for the Bolsheviks to take power without the support of the masses, why couldn’t Kornilov do it? Why didn’t the supporters of “order” shower the revolutionary workers with leaflets calling on them to continue being slaves? If Kornilov’s army suffered, eroded, and was without discipline, under the white heat of the revolution, why were the Bolsheviks able to muster an army? The fact is that in storming the Winter Palace the Bolsheviks relied mainly on workers, whose revolutionary élan created a new, proletarian order within the army. In particular, the Red Guard, which first came into being in 1905 and was to rapidly grow into the nucleus of the future Red Army, played a key role in the seizure of power. The use of force was therefore carried out on the authority of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets, and was accountable to them. Apathy and drunkenness of the tsarist period were transformed into proletarian discipline. In fact, as John Reed tells us, the workers, soldiers and sailors storming the Winter Palace spontaneously checked themselves and put an end to looting, even though they only took items they genuinely needed, such as clothing. What a contrast it was to the drunken and criminal behavior of the Junkers defending the Winter Palace with bottles and cigars!
The Russian Revolution was the most democratic and popular event in human history. Freedom of discussion prevailed in the meetings at the factories and in the soviets. Everyone was eager to debate: meetings often proceeded for several days and nights, uninterrupted. Recent cynicism about the Russian revolution in Russia itself can only be explained by decades of Stalinist degeneration and the ultimate betrayal of capitalist restoration. This is why it is even more important to stress the democratic, popular and working-class nature of the Russian Revolution. The workers of Russia in 1917 truly considered themselves to be masters of society. The tsarist and bourgeois culture of subservience was being destroyed. It became forbidden for the superiors to address their subordinates as “thou.” The workers were learning to take the reins of power into their own hands.
Once the Bolsheviks had gained a majority in the soviets Lenin summoned the party to take the power. Through the soviets the Bolsheviks organized armed insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow to overthrow the Provisional Government before the generals could strangle the revolution in its infancy. The insurrection was enormously successful. The Provisional Government was deserted by almost everyone – even by some of its ministers – before the government was actually overthrown! In a matter of hours, the city of Petrograd was in the hands of the soviet. Moscow followed suit. Soon, most of European Russia was firmly under soviet control. As a matter of fact, the October Revolution was almost bloodless as very few people were willing to defend the rotting corpse of the Kerensky Government. In fact, more people were killed in the filming of Eisenstein’s classic film “October.”
The ease with which the Bolsheviks eventually took power is explained by the fact that 9/10ths of the work of taking power had been carried out before the seizure of power. This leadership can be summed up in Lenin’s advice to the Bolsheviks to “patiently explain.” The Bolsheviks persuaded the workers and soldiers on the basis of their own experience of the need to take power to end the war and solve the land question under a Soviet government. The role of the Bolshevik party is therefore the key lesson of 1917 and distinguishes the October revolution from all other revolutions in history. As Trotsky explained in his history of the Russian Revolution: “Just as a blacksmith cannot seize the red hot iron in his naked hand, so the proletariat cannot directly seize the power; it has to have an organization accommodated to this task.” This is why 1917 will remain forever in the memory of the workers of the world, and why the history of how the party led the working class to power must be studied by all class-conscious workers and youth.
With the absolute support of the working class, the soviet government proceeded to act. The old institutions were torn down. The regular army was replaced by the armed people in the form of workers’ militias. In the first weeks after October, the soviet government passed hundreds of laws and resolutions, proclaiming women’s equality with men, redistribution of land, securing all factories under workers’ control, abolishing all ranks and social distinctions, introducing the right to work, and later nationalizing all industry, transforming Russia forever.
It seemed that the workers’ regime could never be destroyed. A revolutionary wave swept across Europe and Asia. Revolutions sprang up in Germany, Hungary, Iran, and other countries. Sadly, however, the world revolution that the Bolshevik leaders were counting on, was betrayed in country after country by the reformist leaders. Thus, the Revolution was faced with huge obstacles. Isolated and surrounded, the young workers’ state did everything in its power to spread the revolution. After four years of war, Russian industry had largely been destroyed, but more importantly, the civil war had taken its toll on the most heroic elements of the Russian working class. A revolution requires active and class-conscious workers to push it forward, but after so many years of struggle, the vanguard of the working class of 1917 was either exhausted or dead. The low cultural level of the population, where only a small minority could read and write, meant that the young workers’ state had to rely on the old Tsarist bureaucrats to run society. As workers moved out of politics, a bureaucratic stratum began to dominate politics and put their man, Stalin, in control.
This is not the place to deal with the rise of Stalinism, which caused the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. This tragedy for the people of Russia and the world working class has been better dealt with elsewhere, such as in Ted Grant’s book, Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution. Today we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the victory of the Russian workers. This event proved that workers can win and fight back against the combined forces of imperialism. This is why the ruling class does everything in its power to pour filth on the memory of October, for fear that it could happen again. Now, new sections of workers, in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere, are re-discovering the lessons of the October Revolution. Re-reading the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and John Reed on the Russian Revolution one finds ideas that seem very modern when we consider the tasks workers and youth face today. We are confident that this generation will see its own October, learn the lessons of the past, and move to fulfill the destiny that the Russian workers of 90 years ago left unfinished.
For a united world socialist federation!
For further analysis see also:
- Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution by Ted Grant (1997)
- The Meaning of October by Alan Woods (November 1992)
- Russian revolution: 50 Years after by Ted Grant (November 1967)