The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

August 1917:
The Working Class Lifts its Head

Aug 21, 2017

This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

By August 1917, the ruling classes and the main military officers, notably the commander-in-chief Kornilov, no longer hid their desire to crush the revolution once and for all. At the head of the government, Kerensky shared their hopes. He had sent the Russian armies into a new offensive, reestablished the death penalty at the front, and reassured French and British imperialism of his faithfulness to the war aims of Czarist Russia. Now he tried to keep himself in power by pretending to maintain an equilibrium between the revolutionary aspirations of the working masses and soldiers and the counter-revolutionary goals of the generals he relied upon. The working class, who wanted to hear no more vain promises and talk of war, regained hope. It turned towards the Bolsheviks and continued to learn by doing. In Ten Days that Shook the World, the U.S. socialist and journalist John Reed, who was then discovering the situation in Russia, wrote an account of this ferment:

“At the front, the soldiers fought their fight with the officers and learned self-government through their committees. In the factories, those unique Russian organizations, the Factory-Shop Committees, gained experience and strength and a realization of their historical mission by combat with the old order. All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know. In every city, in most towns, along the front, each political faction had its newspaper – sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression.

From Smolny Institute [the general headquarters of the Bolshevik Party] alone, during the first six months, tons went out every day, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts – but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorky...

Then the talk... lectures, debates, speeches – in theaters, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks... meetings in the trenches at the front, in village squares, factories. What a marvelous sight to see the Putilov Factory pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-carts, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere...

And the All-Russian Conferences and Congresses, drawing together the men of two continents – conventions of Soviets, of Cooperatives, Zemstvos [country councils started under the Czar], nationalities, priests, peasants, political parties; the Democratic Conference, the Moscow Conference, the Council of the Russian Republic. There were always three or four conventions going on in Petrograd. At every meeting, attempts to limit the time of speakers voted down, and every man free to express the thought that was in him.

We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly: ‘Did you bring anything to read?’”

The counter-revolution would smash itself to pieces against this incredible force and this growing consciousness in the weeks to come, before being swept aside by the working class in October.