Dec 31, 1977
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russia was a monarchy, ruled by Czars for centuries, with a large land-owning nobility, church officials and capitalists, all of whom shared in running the country. By the end of 1917, all of these people were either out of the country, packing their bags or in jail. The laboring classes, the workers and peasants, were in power, running the country, the army and the factories, and taking over the land. 1917 was the year of the Russian Revolution.
The workers made the revolution because they could no longer stand the slaughter of war, and the starvation and repression of their everyday lives. They came to understand that their suffering was due to the whole economic and political system benefiting only the Czar, the nobles and the capitalists. And the workers understood they could only solve their problems themselves. So they made a revolution and overthrew the old society.
The workers’ revolution quickly became a symbol of hope for workers in the rest of the world. What the Russian workers did in 1917, workers in other countries wanted to do in the years that followed. They would fight to make a world run by the workers, in which, through the vast potential of science and technology, the wealth produced by the workers would benefit everyone. They wanted to do away with this society in which a privileged few controlled the wealth, while the majority lived in misery. They wanted to do away with the poverty, war and repression that were an integral part of the capitalist system.
Sixty years later, 1917 still stands as the only time the workers were able to keep state power after taking it. But their goals were not realized. This failure however was not the failure of the workers in the rest of the world. Rather it was the failure of the leadership of workers’ organizations in the other countries.
Since the revolution was isolated, the workers in Russia could not benefit from the wealth of the rest of the world to help their own destitute country. With the failure of workers to take state power in any other country, the goal of the workers socialism has been put off. But the Russian Revolution’s failure to spread does not mean that its lessons do not apply to workers today. The Russian Revolution is the most important proof in history of the power that the workers have when they are organized and united. The workers, during and after the Russian Revolution, went beyond what any workers had done before or since in building and using their power.
Their experiences not only taught them how to use this power, it can also teach us today what the working class can do in the future.
Compared to the industrial nations of Western Europe, Russia was a poor and backward country. Most of the people were peasants with small plots of land, which never produced enough for their own support. In the first years of the twentieth century, Russia had few factories. Then foreign capitalists began to invest heavily in Russia. With the growth of industry came the growth of the working class. Large industrial complexes, with hundreds or even thousands of workers, quickly sprang up. By 1917, there were several million workers out of a population of 150 million. Their importance was much greater than their numbers. The workers made the Russian economy run. When the workers stopped working, so did industry. The conditions the workers faced were hard, with a working day between 10 and 14 hours. They were paid just enough to keep them alive. Strikes followed, but Russian workers had no rights. Trade unions and strikes were against the law, as was discussing their conditions of life and proposing ways to change things. Whenever the workers organized, they came up against the government. Strikes and protests led to jail, exile, shootings and beatings by government police or soldiers.
At the head of the workers’ strikes and protests were revolutionaries. Many workers understood that it was not only the factory owners who opposed their efforts to make a better life, but also the government. Their own experience and lessons drawn by the revolutionaries showed the workers that reforms were unlikely, if not impossible. They understood they needed a government that represented them. They understood they could only obtain it by revolution.
The revolutionary movement was split between three main parties. But only one, the Bolshevik Party, proved in time to be a party which could aid the working class to take power. The Bolshevik Party based itself on the workers in the major industrial centers of Russia. These workers were the most militant, the backbone of the revolutionary movement.
In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan, bringing the nation’s economy to a crisis. Strikes began. The government was unable to repress them. In January, 1905, a massacre of strikers in the capital of St. Petersburg triggered a general strike. The general strike overflowed into a full scale revolution.
When the strikes began, many factories set up their own committee to direct the strike. As the strikes spread, committees were formed in many cities with representatives from the different striking factories. These strike committees grew until they began to handle other things besides the strike. They helped to solve many problems of daily life in the working class. These were the Soviets, that is, the workers’ councils. But the workers were not strong enough to win the army to their side. The working class was still very young and inexperienced. So, after 11 months, the 1905 revolution was defeated.
But the workers and revolutionaries learned from the experiences of 1905, and what they learned was not wiped out by the repression that followed. Workers’ power was crushed in 1905 only to rise again in 1917.
The revolution of 1917 began as a result of a severe economic and political crisis brought on by World War I. World War I was an imperialist war involving the major powers: England, Germany, France, Russia and, later, the United States. The capitalists were fighting over how to divide up the world and its markets.
For the poor, the war was a disaster. World War I was the largest and most destructive war ever seen, a slaughter of millions. Starvation, disease and death became a way of life not only for the soldiers but for all poor people. After three years of war, the workers were demanding an end to the slaughter.
From the beginning the Bolshevik Party had opposed the war and condemned those responsible, the capitalists. The Bolsheviks were the only party to call on the workers to turn the imperialist war into a war against the rulers. February 23, 1917 was International Women’s Day. Women workers from several textile plants in Petrograd called for a strike and demonstration. Tens of thousands of them marched crying “Bread! Bread!” This strike spread to other workers throughout the city. The Czar called out the troops to put down the demonstrations and force the workers back to work. But the troops, too, were sick of the war, sick of the starvation. The troops disobeyed their orders and joined the demonstrations. Suddenly, no one was taking orders from the Czar; his power dissolved into thin air. Five days later, with no troops to support him any longer, the Czar abdicated his throne. The government fell; the revolution had begun.
With the Czar gone, there was no government strong enough to continue running Russian society in the old ways. And the workers already had the means to organize society in new ways: their councils, the Soviets. The Soviets had been destroyed in 1905, but the memory of them was in every worker’s consciousness. The working class set up new Soviets as soon as the February Revolution began.
The problems faced by the working class were also faced by others. As the workers tried to solve these problems, the Soviets drew other classes to them, most importantly, the poor peasants. Many of the poor peasants were in the army; there they began to create Soviets, as did the workers in the Navy. Soviets sprang up all over Russia, but especially in the cities. With them came workers’ power and workers’ democracy. But in the spring of 1917, the working class was not sure how to use this power. The coming months of the revolution would teach them.
The capitalists and wealthy landowners saw the workers’ Soviets forming, and so they hurried to form their own government. They called it the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government was a new government with a new name. But it carried out the same old policies of the Czar. It called for a continuation of the war, despite the disasters of the past three years and despite the masses’ demand for peace. It did nothing to improve the workers’ living conditions. Finally, the Provisional Government condemned poor peasants for taking land from the large estates. In fact, this government proved that it had nothing in common with the aspirations of the workers, the soldiers or the peasants.
For revolutionaries, the question was clearly posed. There were two governments in Russia, the capitalists’ Provisional Government and the workers’ Soviets. Of the three revolutionary parties, only the Bolsheviks came out in support of the workers’ Soviets.
And even the Bolsheviks hesitated, at least in the beginning, to support the revolution. Many Bolshevik militants saw that Russia was an underdeveloped country, one of the most backward in Europe. The Russian working class was small in comparison to the whole population. The militants did not see that this working class was small, but very powerful. They did not see that the workers could fight not only in their interests but also in the interests of all the impoverished, especially the peasants. They did not see that the workers could lead a revolution and conquer power. So for the first six weeks of the revolution, the Bolshevik Party was unclear about the question of Soviet power ... until Lenin returned to Russia from exile imposed by the Czar.
Lenin’s return in April marked the important change in the Bolshevik Party. Lenin led a struggle inside the party; he successfully convinced the party that revolution was possible. He was able to do this partly because of the respect the revolutionaries had for him. But more importantly, he based himself on the desires of the workers. He declared that the workers were more revolutionary than the party. The change that the party made after Lenin’s return enabled it to lead the workers’ revolution six months later.
The revolutionary tempo quickened. In June, the Provisional Government ordered a major new war effort, trying to mobilize demonstrations in favor of the war. However, the workers organized a larger demonstration, opposing the war and opposing the capitalists. The Bolsheviks took the lead in this demonstration. The workers in Petrograd showed they opposed the war. But how far would they go in opposing it?
July 3 marked the first day of a three-day demonstration of the workers in Petrograd. There were one million armed workers in the streets. Their slogan was “All power to the Soviets.” That is, the workers were calling for the Soviets to rule alone, without any Provisional Government.
By this time, the workers recognized the Bolsheviks as the only party that consistently defended their interests. For this reason the workers looked to the Bolsheviks for leadership of the demonstrations. So the Bolsheviks were able to prevent the July demonstrations from breaking out into an open fight, a fight that would have been lost, because the workers of Petrograd were isolated. As the demonstrations ended, the Provisional Government counterattacked. Its target was the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were imprisoned. Lenin also was wanted for arrest, but he escaped and directed the Bolshevik activities while remaining in hiding.
The capitalists did not stop at their attack of the Bolsheviks. In September, the capitalists tried to use the army to crush the Soviets. But the workers easily beat back the capitalists’ forces. Both the capitalists’ intentions and also their powerlessness in the face of the organized workers were revealed to the entire country.
The Petrograd workers were no longer alone in understanding that the overthrow of the Czar had solved nothing. The masses all over Russia were now ready to make another revolution. The Bolshevik Party began to prepare and mobilize the workers for the second revolution.
At the end of September, Leon Trotsky, released from prison, was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet. The Soviet set up a military committee, to organize the defense of the working class. The insurrection was prepared in secret by the military committee of the Soviet, directed by Trotsky. The first task was to make sure that all the troops were on the workers’ side. Bolshevik militants persuaded troops who were still hesitant, winning them to the side of the workers.
The key force of the insurrection was the Red Guard, the workers’ militia. The Red Guard was started as defense guards in the factories during the great demonstrations that brought down the Czar in February. The workers formed these units on their own, realizing that in disarming the old order, they had to arm themselves. In April, the Red Guard was organized formally, with the Bolsheviks leading the organization.
By June, militias were set up in every working class district, and they were coordinated by a general staff for all of Petrograd. By September, the use of weapons was being taught in 79 Petrograd factories. In a good many of those factories, all the workers carried arms. Duties were performed on a rotating basis, with two thirds of the workers at their jobs in the factory at any time, and the other third on guard. Their regular wages were paid by the factory for the time on duty in the Red Guard. Three absences without excuse were grounds for expulsion from the Red Guard. The officers were elected. If the officers had not already received military training, they took special courses. On the eve of the October uprising, the Red Guard numbered 20,000 in Petrograd, and 100,000 throughout the country. They were organized into battalions of 400 to 600 each.
The revolutionary committee fixed the date of the insurrection, October 25. On October 22, the battleship Aurora was ordered by the bourgeois government to leave the harbor outside of Petrograd. But the sailors, who had been won over to the Bolsheviks, refused to leave. This battleship was used by the workers in the insurrection. On October 23, the Provisional Government tried to close the print shops that printed the Bolshevik newspaper. But the Soviet sent its troops to reopen the print shops.
On October 24, armed workers’ detachments patrolled the streets of Petrograd. In the evening, these detachments were sent to all of the strategic points in the city. The Provisional Government fell 24 hours later, with hardly a fight. The workers’ insurrection triumphed.
The morning after the insurrection there was a Congress of delegates from all the Soviets in Russia. They officially declared that a workers’ government ruled Russia. And they elected the first officials of the workers’ government. At the head of this government was Lenin. At the end of this historic congress, Lenin, who had just returned from hiding, made a speech. He ended his speech by declaring, “We must now proceed to build a proletarian state in Russia. Long live the world socialist revolution!” These words embodied the hopes and tasks of the workers.
The workers had taken state power, but in order to hold it, they had to solve immense problems and organize a new society. The biggest problem confronting the Russian workers was the need to spread their revolution. Russia was only one country in a world still controlled by the imperialists. The Russian workers had made their revolution, but the fate of the workers’ revolution was in the hands of the workers in the imperialist countries. So the Soviets proposed to set up an International, that is, an organization where representatives from revolutionary workers’ organizations could come together to learn and organize for their own revolution, to decide together on the best means to carry the struggle forward.
Inside Russia, the first problem to face the new workers’ power was the need for peace. The Soviets called on all the countries still fighting to end the war, with no country taking over the territory of another. When they received no reply, they decided to negotiate a separate peace with Germany.
The problem of the land was decided by the peasants. The Soviets simply abolished the right of large landlords, monasteries and churches to own land. All the old taxes and debts which had burdened and starved the peasants were also abolished. The poor peasants took over the land and split up the large estates among themselves. For the first time in Russian history, the peasants were free to work the land for themselves.
The problem of who should own the factories was decided by the workers. The capitalists still owned and controlled most production at the start of the revolution. The Soviets said that the workers should manage the factories. The capitalists tried to fight this by sabotaging production, but when the bosses brought work to a halt, the workers simply got production going again. Eventually, the Soviets expropriated the capitalists and took over all the important industries. This measure helped to break the capitalists’ economic power.
The Soviets also proclaimed the equality and sovereignty of all nationalities in Russia. Most of the people living in Russia were not of the same nationality. There were (besides Russians) Byelo-Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Finns, Tartars and many others. These peoples had been oppressed for centuries by Czarism. With the revolution, national movements began. The Soviets declared that all these people were free and equal with other Russians. They had a right to their own culture and language. If they didn’t trust the Soviets, they even had a right to form their own independent states.
With the working class in power, a new kind of democracy flowered. Political life was open to ordinary people for the first time. Any group of working people could have supplies and access to printing facilities in proportion to the number of people who supported them, as long as they were in support of the revolution. Mansions, halls, palaces and government buildings were turned over to the people for meetings. The capitalist press made fun of the workers’ “mania for meetings,” but this “mania” was a surer sign of democracy than anything which has ever existed under capitalism.
The workers, long kept ignorant by the old rulers, were encouraged to pursue an education. If the workers were going to run society, they would have to learn how to read and write. Each local Soviet was responsible for trying to educate as many people as possible. The libraries were kept open fifteen hours a day, seven days a week.
Most courts were abolished. The workers set up tribunals in their own districts. The public prosecutor and the defense spoke before the public, which took part in the debate. The verdict was taken by vote among the audience. Formal tribunals were organized later. These were constituted from delegates to the Soviets, each assisted by two workers drawn from lists of the factory committees. In this way, the administration of justice was carried out by the people, not established apart from the people.
Freedom in this new revolutionary society meant running factories, going to meetings, dispensing justice, and changing the personal lives of people, especially home and family life. Above all, the situation of women had to be improved. At first, the Soviets established equal rights for women with men, starting with equal pay for equal work. The Soviets began to set up public kitchens, laundries, housing and so on to free women from the oppression of house work. Efforts were made to free people to make decisions about their own lives, without any interference from the state or other authorities. If they wanted to get married, they simply proclaimed it by mailing a card to the local Soviet. If they wanted to get divorced, they mailed another card. Abortions were legalized, giving women the freedom to decide when they wanted or didn’t want children. Communal day care centers for workers’ children were set up, freeing women to participate more fully in the building of the revolutionary society. With these changes, children became the responsibility of the whole society.
Usually when we study history, we are taught about the so-called leaders: presidents, millionaires, kings and generals. The Russian Revolution had its share of leaders: Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks. They were leaders the proletariat could be proud of. But behind these great figures stood a multitude of others who were also energetic, strong and creative. The Russian Revolution was so rich precisely because it began to awaken and develop the human potential that class society destroys. While the revolution functioned through leaders chosen and controlled by the masses, it derived its power and creativity from the masses of workers and peasants.
After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union went through years of rapid industrialization, and the population was generally much better off than before the revolution. Yet it is not, and never was, a socialist country.
When the workers and peasants made the Russian Revolution in 1917, they were not fighting only for themselves; they fought also for a world without bosses, without wars, without police. These workers fought for socialism. They won their revolution. They won the civil war. They beat the capitalists in Russia. So why isn’t there socialism today in the Soviet Union?
The answer to what happened inside the USSR after the revolution is to be found in what happened outside the country. Just as no person is an island, so no country is an island all by itself. The workers did all they could to make a revolution in Russia. But the revolution came at the end of World War I, after millions of Russians had died. There were three more years of civil war, and millions more people died. By this time, Russia was in ashes.
While Russia was a huge country, the largest in the world, covering one sixth of the land surface of the earth, it was a poor country. It had little industry compared to the imperialist countries, and its agriculture was very backward. So by the end of all these wars, the only thing left to be shared was poverty, famine and disease.
Socialism can only be built when enough goods are produced so that everyone can live decently. But all Russia could offer its people was misery. During the early years of the Revolution, the Russian workers and their leaders looked to the workers of other countries for help. What the Russian workers needed was for workers in other countries to make revolutions in their own countries.
If, for example, there had been a revolution in a highly-industrialized country like Germany, the two countries, Russia and Germany, could have combined their resources. Germany could send Russia machines, and Russia could send Germany grain, oil, coal, lumber, etc. Such an event would also have made it easier for workers in other countries to make revolutions and overthrow their capitalists.
The Russians made a revolution with the hope that it would be the first of many revolutions. This would have made it possible to construct socialism on a world scale, using the resources and industry of the whole world. For socialism can only be constructed out of plenty.
Unfortunately, no other workers followed the Russian workers in making a successful revolution. Workers in the other countries tried to make revolutions: in Finland, Germany, Italy, Hungary, China, England, Spain and other countries. But the workers in these countries were always betrayed by their leaders. Some leaders and parties deliberately turned against the workers; other parties lacked the Bolshevik Party’s experience in the working-class movement. Some countries had no revolutionary party at all. So they were unable to lead successful revolutions.
Isolated and under attack, the Russian workers began to step back from participation in the political life of the country. A government bureaucracy began to grow and run things in place of the workers. After the civil war, the main leaders of the 1917 Revolution, Lenin, Trotsky plus other old revolutionaries, opposed this bureaucracy and were supported by the militant workers who were left. But few workers were left. Lenin suffered from poor health. For the last three years of his life until his death in 1924, he played a limited role. The bureaucrats could not openly oppose Lenin because he was the leader of the revolutionary party and the revolution. But when Lenin died, the bureaucracy was able to solidify its control. The most combative workers were dead or forced to go back to the land. Trotsky, the main leader of the opposition, was isolated because he had not been a member of the Bolshevik Party during most of its early years. But one person alone could not have stopped the formation of the bureaucracy. So although the workers had made the revolution to run things for themselves, the bureaucrats took over. Soviet Russia under Stalin and the rest of the bureaucracy became a police state. The secret police were all-powerful; soon concentration camps were set up. Anyone who spoke against the government risked their lives. Many workers filled the camps and were killed there.
What happened in Russia after the revolution was not the fault of the Russian working class. They did everything the working class in one country could possibly do. And they established a workers’ state, so that, even today, the capitalists have not been able to return. The fault for the police state lies with the leaders of the working class in other countries. By betraying the workers in their country, they also stabbed the Russian workers in the back.
But nothing in history is inevitable. The Russian workers made their revolution to change the world, to turn exploitation and suffering into prosperity and decent lives for everyone. They fought and died for this. In the end, the Russian Revolution was betrayed.
But today it is still possible to succeed. Workers in other countries must make their own revolutions. The bureaucracy in Russia must be thrown out by the workers.
History is made by people. If we learn what those before us have done, both their successes and failures, we can also learn how to shape our own future. The socialist future of humanity, begun by the working class of Russia, can be attained by the workers of the rest of the world.
Reprinted from The Spark, 1977