Mar 19, 2018
This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Several months after the workers’ councils (soviets) took power, the new revolutionary state came under attack from all sides.
In October 1917, the soviets overthrew the bourgeois government in order to establish the first workers’ state. They did so under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin. At that moment, the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SRs), a petty-bourgeois revolutionary party, split in two. The Left SRs separated from their more right-wing comrades, supported the Bolsheviks, and participated in the new government.
The Bolsheviks – and Lenin first of all – always knew that the establishment of a workers’ state required the use of the Terror (this name comes from the period of repression against the nobility during the French Revolution) to prevent the capitalists and czarists (royalist partisans of the czar) from retaking power.
However, at first the Bolsheviks’ use of repression was very moderate, particularly that carried out by the Cheka, the political police of the soviets. But the counter-revolutionary attacks intensified.
In January, the czarist general Kaledin raised an army that attacked the southern part of soviet Russia “in the name of the Constituent Assembly.”
Among the “ukases” (decrees) that he published in the region that he controlled were #2428 and #2431, which read: “It is illegal to arrest workers. The orders are to hang them or to shoot them,” and “The orders are to hang all workers who have been arrested in the street. Their bodies must be exposed in public for three days.”
In February 1918, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty with the German armies that were attacking them from the west that required Russia to cede Ukraine to Germany. They did this in order to end the war, as they had promised the masses. In Ukraine, the German troops helped the czarists to create a new White Army (against the Red Army and the workers’ state) that carried out wholesale massacres of Jewish civilians (150,000 in one year). In Finland, a third White Army, led by the general Wrangel, massacred the workers who had taken power in Helsinki (with 20,000 workers and their families massacred at the end of April 1918).
The threat also came from within. In March, the Left SRs who wanted to continue the “revolutionary” war against Germany turned against the Bolsheviks. Their leader, Maria Spiridonova, burst in to the Congress of Soviets and, brandishing a revolver, announced that she was calling her party to armed insurrection against the Bolsheviks. Yakov Blumkin, the right-hand man of Felix Dzherzhinsky (the Bolshevik head of the Cheka) applied this slogan by assassinating the German ambassador to Russia and then, with the help of SR officers in the Cheka, taking Dzherzhinsky himself prisoner. Dzherzhinsky was eventually freed, and Yakov Blumkin was allowed to leave Russia for his native Ukraine, where he took part in the local Bolshevik Party. As for Maria Spiridonova, she was sentenced to one year of imprisonment, then immediately amnestied “in view of her past services rendered to the revolution.”
But the counter-revolutionary armies and the French, British, U.S., and Japanese expeditionary corps were strangling the revolution from the outside and massacring workers and peasants. Another Left SR militant, Fanny Kaplan, shot Lenin three times on August 30th, leaving him between life and death for several days. The survival of the workers’ state was clearly at risk.
It was only on September 5th, 1918, nearly a year after the soviets took power, that the soviet government decreed the “Red Terror”: the order to widely arrest people suspected of plotting against the workers’ state or aiding the White Armies, and – in those cases where their guilt was clear – to execute them without delay. This order also consisted of taking bourgeois families as hostages in order to demoralize those who supported the reestablishment of capitalism.
According to the historians who are most hostile to the revolution, the red terror resulted in 140,000 deaths in three years … which is many times fewer than the number of workers, peasants, and Jewish citizens massacred by the counter-revolutionaries in the first months of the white terror. Far from showing that the Bolsheviks were bloody dictators, this period instead demonstrates all of the restraint that they strove to act on for as long as possible.
But it also shows that whatever the temperance and good will of the revolutionaries, the laws of revolution are stronger than them, and that an oppressed class that takes power cannot do it without exercising terror over the privileged classes that they overthrow.