“Red October” is not merely a compelling story from a century ago. Its key events and the logic of their development – shaped not only by objective conditions but also by active intervention of revolutionary subjects – revealed precious lessons as to how capitalism will be overthrown on a global scale.
While the Russian Revolution provides a model for the revolutionary overturn of capitalism, Russia was not itself a “model” country of capitalist development. Marxists had anticipated for decades that revolution was most likely to occur first in the advanced centers of capitalist industry such as Britain, Germany, France or even the United States. Near the end of his life, Marx had entertained the possibility that socialist revolution might come first to backward Russia, but the mainstream of the socialist movement, while acknowledging that the Tsarist Empire was ripe for revolution, anticipated a “bourgeois revolution” that would be limited to pulling Russia out of its feudal backwardness and paving the way for capitalist development.
This estimation viewed Russia only as an isolated social formation, but by the end of the 19th century capitalism had become a truly world system, enmeshing existing economies in a set of complex social, economic and political relations. As Lenin and other Marxists later came to understand, capitalism had reached its highest stage of development in the last quarter of the 19th century – imperialism, the international system in which advanced capitalist countries dominate economically “underdeveloped” ones. Subordination to the centers of imperialist “finance capital” was the fate of the colonies and semi-colonies. The latter would remain in a state of underdevelopment because they were late-comers; the more powerful advanced economies had already ventured out beyond their borders, so that no further “virgin” development of capitalism along traditional lines remained possible. Competition between the most powerful states for political and territorial dominance led to the outbreak of World War I, the first generalized interimperialist military conflict, which signaled the historical obsolescence of the bourgeois mode of production.
Russia entered the war as a vast empire whose economic structure was characterized by a combination of archaic semi-feudal institutions with a numerically dominant poor peasantry, and pockets of advanced (and largely foreign-owned) capitalist enterprises, all administered by a powerful state that played an independent role on the world stage. In his magisterial History of the Russian Revolution (1930), the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained how belated capitalist development made Russia ripe for socialist revolution:
“Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.”
For Trotsky, the “fundamental and most stable feature of Russian history is the slow tempo of her development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms and low level of culture resulting from it.” Through the uneven development of capitalism on a global scale, this backwardness became enmeshed with advanced capitalist structures. While in many respects subjugated by more developed Western European centers, Russian capitalism found itself benefitting from an exploitative relationship with still weaker countries on the periphery of its empire. Combined and uneven development meant that the coming revolutionary upsurge against the highly repressive Tsarist autocracy would assign a key role to the comparatively small but politically sophisticated proletariat. The advanced structures of Russian capitalism laid the groundwork for modern class struggle, while the backwardness of the country lent that struggle a particularly acute form and urgency.
Although a component of the imperialist bloc that ultimately won World War I, Russia was bled white by the conflict:
“In the matter of military supplies and finances, Russia at war suddenly finds herself in slavish dependence upon her allies. This is merely a military expression of her general dependence upon advanced capitalist countries. But help from the Allies does not save the situation. The lack of munitions, the small number of factories for their production, the sparseness of railroad lines for their transportation, soon translated the backwardness of Russia into the familiar language of defeat – which served to remind the Russian national liberals that their ancestors had not accomplished the bourgeois revolution and that the descendants, therefore, owed a debt to history.”
French socialist leader Jules Guesde once remarked that “war is the mother of revolution.” World War I placed an enormous strain on Russian society, not only with massive battlefield casualties (some two and a half million killed) but also with intense hardship and deprivation on the home front. The “imperialist chain,” as Lenin would later remark, broke at its “weakest link” when the pressures of the war triggered the outbreak of revolution in February 1917.
Although social tensions had been rising and major unrest was widely expected on all sides, revolution took most people by surprise when it finally arrived. A month earlier, Lenin, in exile in Switzerland, famously speculated that he might not live to see the revolution.
Trotsky described how rapidly things developed:
“The 23rd of February was International Woman’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough committee, all workers – was opposing strikes. The temper of the masses, according to Kayurov, one of the leaders in the workers’ district, was very tense; any strike would threaten to turn into an open fight. But since the committee thought the time unripe for militant action – the party not strong enough and the workers having too few contacts with the soldiers – they decided not to call for strikes but to prepare for revolutionary action at some indefinite time in the future. Such was the course followed by the committee on the eve of the 23rd of February, and everyone seemed to accept it. On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support. ‘With reluctance,’ writes Kayurov, ‘the Bolsheviks agreed to this, and they were followed by the workers – Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead.’”
“Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives. The overgrown breadlines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings, encounters with the police. The movement began in the Vyborg district with its large industrial establishments; thence it crossed over to the Petersburg side.… A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Woman’s Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had guessed even by nightfall.”
Rather than being contained or put down, the revolutionary fervor of the masses continued to mount, moving from success to success:
“On the following day the movement not only fails to diminish, but doubles. About one-half of the industrial workers of Petrograd are on strike on the 24th of February. The workers come to the factories in the morning; instead of going to work they hold meetings; then begin processions toward the centre. New districts and new groups of the population are drawn into the movement. The slogan ‘Bread!’ is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: ‘Down with autocracy!’ ‘Down with the war!’”
“On the 25th, the strike spread wider. According to the government’s figures, 240,000 workers participated that day. The most backward layers are following up the vanguard..”
“In the morning [of the 27th] the workers streamed again to the factories, and in open meetings resolved to continue the struggle. Especially resolute, as always, were the Vyborgtsi. But in other districts too these morning meetings were enthusiastic. To continue the struggle! But what would that mean today? The general strike had issued in revolutionary demonstrations by immense crowds, and the demonstrations had led to a collision with the troops. To continue the struggle today would mean to summon an armed insurrection. But nobody had formulated this summons. It had grown irresistibly out of the events, but it was never placed on the order of the day by a revolutionary party.”
As the strikers and demonstrators faced down the military and the police – the “armed bodies of men” that form the core of the state – the decisive turning-point came. Rather than carry out their orders and massacre protesters, rank-and-file soldiers turned their guns on their commanding officers, going over to the revolution. The repressive apparatus of the old regime crumbled; the revolution triumphed. The Tsar abdicated, and a moment of uncertainty set in: what would take the place of the overthrown regime?
The February Revolution was essentially a revolution “from below,” a semi-spontaneous mass uprising without a central leadership. Politics, however, abhors a vacuum, and the anarchist notion of perpetual “leaderless” upheavals is pure fantasy. The Russian masses, having dissolved the old regime, looked around to see who would “take the power.” In the first instance, they found the cowardly bourgeois politicians in the Duma (parliament), whose criticisms of Tsarism had become meaningless as they adapted to working within the Tsarist regime. They had not wanted the revolution and had in fact been terrified by the events in the streets, but the bourgeois Duma representatives in the Tauride Palace had state power thrust into their hands by the revolutionary masses. A bourgeois “Provisional Government” was created to pick up the reins dropped by the Tsarist authorities. Meanwhile, another potential center of political power was rising:
“At that time the revolution was creating in the same building only in a less showy part of it, another institution. The revolutionary leaders did not have to invent it; the experience of the Soviets of 1905 was forever chiselled into the consciousness of the workers. At every lift of the movement, even in wartime, the idea of soviets was almost automatically reborn. And although the appraisal of the role of the soviets was different among Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – the Social Revolutionaries had in general no stable appraisals – the form of organisation itself stood clear of all debate. The Mensheviks liberated from prison, members of the Military-Industrial Committee, meeting in the Tauride Palace with leaders of the Trade Union and Co-operative movements, likewise of the right wing, and with the Menshevik deputies of the Duma, Cheidze and Skobelev, straightway formed a ‘Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies,’ which in the course of the day was filled out principally with former revolutionists who had lost connection with the masses but still preserved their ‘names.’ This Executive Committee, including also Bolsheviks in its staff, summoned the workers to elect deputies at once. The first session was appointed for the same evening in the Tauride Palace.…”
“… The tasks and functions of the Soviet grow unceasingly under pressure from the masses. The revolution finds here its indubitable centre. The workers, the soldiers, and soon also the peasants, will from now on turn only to the Soviet. In their eyes the Soviet becomes the focus of all hopes and all authority, an incarnation of the revolution itself. But representatives of the possessing classes will also seek in the Soviet, with whatever grindings of teeth, protection and counsel in the resolving of conflicts.”
The factory committees and local soviets viewed the Executive Committee of the Soviet as the pinnacle of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ representation, not the bourgeois Provisional Government and the local authorities that supported it. This “dual power” situation was inherently unstable, but this contradiction was initially suppressed because the reformist political parties that enjoyed the majority of popular support effectively controlled both bodies and were firmly committed to salvaging capitalism. The Provisional Government was initially barely more than a fiction, but it was made real by reformists, who joined it in increasing numbers over the following months, leading their substantial bases of support among the working masses.
At first, the Bolsheviks, with Lenin still in exile, had denounced the Provisional Government and called on the Soviet to convene a constituent assembly to create a “democratic republic,” in line with the previous Bolshevik notion that the coming revolution would be “bourgeois” while creating a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” Under the guidance of party leaders Lev Kamenev and Stalin (who returned from exile on 13 March), however, this orientation was replaced with “support [for] the Provisional Government in its activity,” albeit “only in so far as it moves along the path of satisfying the working class and the revolutionary peasantry” (cited in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1). Lenin furiously opposed this political accommodation. Upon arriving in Petrograd on 3 April, he advanced his combative “April Theses,” which set out a new orientation of working-class socialist revolution for the party.
The first three of the ten theses rejected the Provisional Government and harshly condemned its commitment to Russia’s continued participation in the war:
“1) In our attitude towards the war, which under the new [provisional] government of Lvov and Co. unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war owing to the capitalist nature of that government, not the slightest concession to ‘revolutionary defencism’ is permissible.”
“[It is necessary in addressing the popular masses] to explain the inseparable connection existing between capital and the imperialist war, and to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace.…”
“2) The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”
“3) No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.”
The next five theses addressed the need for a new, workers’ government to replace the bourgeois Provisional Government:
“4) … As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.
“5) Not a parliamentary republic – to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step – but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.”
“6) The weight of emphasis in the agrarian programme to be shifted to the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies.”
“7) The immediate union of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.
“8) It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.”
Lenin advocated a second, proletarian-socialist revolution to resolve the situation of dual power in favor of a workers’ state. This represented a departure from the party’s previous (albeit algebraic) concept of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” which was envisioned to oversee the development of capitalism before a subsequent break toward socialism in the wake of successful revolutions in more advanced capitalist countries like Germany. The February Revolution and the ensuing political situation had shown the illusory nature of this two-step process. The working class, having been propelled onto the historical stage, was now compelled to address its own needs which quite logically pushed beyond the bounds of capitalism. Lenin projected the seizure of power by the working class (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) to begin the socialist transformation of the economy, a process whose completion would require extension of the revolution to leading capitalist countries.
Lenin’s final two theses proposed a party congress to update the name and program of the party, and to launch a new international organization to replace the revisionist Second International, whose leading sections had supported the war efforts of their respective ruling classes. The “April Theses” were derided as sectarian lunacy by reformist socialists and many leading Bolsheviks but were embraced by the rank and file of the Bolshevik Party, and quickly adopted without rupture.
In June, the first “All-Russian Congress of Soviets” was held, bringing together representatives from workers across the country:
“Of its 822 delegates with voting rights, the SRs [Social Revolutionaries] accounted for 285, the Mensheviks for 248 and the Bolsheviks for 105. Nearly 150 delegates belonged to various minor groups, and 45 declared no party allegiance – an indication that the political affiliations of many outlying Soviets were still fluid. The Bolshevik leaders attended in full force; Trotsky and Lunacharsky were among the 10 delegates of the ‘united social-democrats’ [Mezhraiontsy], who solidly supported the Bolsheviks throughout the three weeks of the congress.”
—Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1
The congress elected a “Central Executive Committee,” on which the Bolsheviks had 35 of the 250 members.
The Bolsheviks would not remain a minority for long. As the war dragged on and living conditions failed to improve, the working masses developed a sharper understanding of the political bankruptcy of the “moderate socialists.” The Bolsheviks, now armed with Lenin’s revolutionary orientation to transfer “all power to the soviets,” gained momentum in the proletariat. Although Bolshevik leaders attempted to restrain discontent until conditions were more propitious for victory, a new military campaign in Galicia provoked the Petrograd workers – now firmly behind the Bolsheviks – to push for an armed insurrection against the Provisional Government:
“Izvestia [controlled by opponents of the Bolsheviks] sketched the following outline of the events of July 3rd: ‘At five o’clock in the afternoon there came out, armed, the First Machine Gun, a part of the Moscow, a part of the Grenadier, and a part of the Pavlovsky regiments. They were joined by crowds of workers … By eight o’clock in the evening, separate parts of regiments began to pour towards the Palace of Kshesinskaia [Bolshevik Party headquarters], armed to the teeth and with red banners and placards demanding the transfer of power to the soviets. Speeches were made from the balcony … At ten-thirty a meeting was held on the square in front of the Tauride Palace [headquarters of the Soviet] … The troops elected a deputation to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee which presented in their name the following demands: Removal of the ten bourgeois ministers [in the Provisional Government], all power to the soviets, cessation of the offensive, confiscation of the printing plants of the bourgeois press, the land to be state property, state control of production.’ Aside from certain prunings – ‘parts of regiments’ instead of regiments, ‘crowds of workers’ instead of entire factories – you may say that the official report of Tseretelli and Dan does not distort the general picture of what happened. In particular it correctly notes the two focal points of the demonstration: the private residence of Kshesinskaia and the Tauride Palace. Both spiritually and physically the movement revolved around those two antagonistic centers: It came to the house of Kshesinskaia for instructions, leadership, inspirational speeches; to the Tauride Palace it came to present demands and even to threaten a little with its power.
“Convinced finally that all together they constituted only a third of the assembly, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries left the hall. This was becoming a favorite tactic with the democrats; they began to boycott the soviets from the moment they lost the majority there. A resolution summoning the Executive Committee to take the power was adopted in the absence of the opposition by 276 votes. Elections were immediately held for the fifteen members of the commission. Ten places were left for the minority – and these ten would remain unoccupied. This fact of the election of a Bolshevik commission signified both to friends and enemies that the workers’ section of the Petrograd soviet would henceforth become a Bolshevik base. A vast step forward! In April the influence of the Bolsheviks had extended to approximately a third of the Petrograd workers; in the Soviet of those days they occupied a wholly insignificant sector. Now, at the beginning of July, the Bolsheviks were sending to the workers’ section about two-thirds of its members. That meant that among the masses their influence had become decisive.”
—Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution
The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party was hoping to broaden its support in the other major cities of the country, where it was still a minority, before launching a bid for power, but unable to convince their base of the need to wait, the Bolsheviks agreed to an armed demonstration. Instead of calling for insurrection, however, their leaflet summoned the workers “by way of a peaceful and organized demonstration to bring their will to the attention of the Executive Committees now in session.”
Confrontations between demonstrators and government troops (and other counterrevolutionary forces) during the “July Days” produced no revolutionary overturn – only defeat and a valuable lesson for the masses, as Trotsky recalls:
“Skirmishes, victims, fruitlessness of the struggle, and indefiniteness of practical aim – that describes the movement. The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution: to call on the workers and soldiers to end the demonstration. This time that appeal, which was immediately brought to the attention of the Executive Committee, met hardly any opposition at all in the lower ranks. The masses ebbed back into the suburbs, and they cherished no intention of renewing the struggle on the following day. They felt that the problem of ‘Power to the Soviets’ was considerably more complicated than had appeared.”
Carr relates that the Bolshevik newspaper “Pravda was suppressed; and orders were issued for the arrest of the three chief Bolshevik leaders. Kamenev was taken; Lenin and [Grigory] Zinoviev went into hiding, and escaped to Finland”:
“Within the next few days the Galician offensive failed, with heavy losses; another ministerial crisis led to the resignation of Lvov and the appointment of Kerensky as premier; Trotsky and the Mezhraiontsy, some 4,000 strong, at length joined the Bolsheviks; and there was a flood of further arrests, including Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Kollontai.”
—The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1
Despite this repression, the influence of the Bolsheviks grew as the underlying political contradictions became more acute. Alexander Kerensky, the nominally socialist “Minister-President,” was conspiring in secret for a military crackdown on the Bolsheviks and the soviets with the aim of establishing a dictatorship. He was betrayed by General Kornilov, whom he had earlier promoted to “commander-in-chief.” Kornilov decided that it made more sense to get rid of all the socialists, including Kerensky and other “moderates,” rather than merely the Bolsheviks. When Kerensky realized he was about to be double-crossed, he tried to recall the general, who openly broke with the government and attempted to march on Petrograd. Yet the Kornilov-led counterrevolution never materialized; the conspiracy fell apart in the face of working class opposition. Rather than leaving Kerensky to his fate, Trotsky explains, the Bolsheviks militarily backed Kerensky against the rightist coup d’état:
“The [government’s] Executive Committee sent telephonegrams to Kronstadt and Vyborg asking for the despatch of considerable detachments of troops to Petrograd. On the morning of the 29th, the troops began to arrive. These were chiefly Bolshevik units. In order that the summons of the Executive Committee should become operative, it had to be confirmed by the central committee of the Bolsheviks. A little earlier, at midday of the 28th, upon an order from Kerensky which sounded very much like a humble request, sailors from the cruiser Aurora had undertaken the defense of the Winter Palace. A part of the same crew were still imprisoned in Kresty for participation in the July demonstration. During their hours off duty the sailors came to the prison for a visit with the imprisoned Kronstadters, and with Trotsky, Raskolnikov and others. ‘Isn’t it time to arrest the government?’ asked the visitors. ‘No, not yet,’ was the answer. ‘Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward we will settle with Kerensky.’”
—The History of the Russian Revolution
For the next two months, the influence of the Bolsheviks grew exponentially across the country, as the government of “Compromisers” grew more desperate. Lenin was still in hiding but Trotsky, now a leading Bolshevik, had been released from prison, and was elected President of the Petrograd Soviet, acting in the open along with other Bolshevik organizers and agitators to prepare the ground for sweeping aside what remained of the Provisional Government. Trotsky explains how the country was now swinging over to the party of Lenin – unthinkable just months before:
“But incomparably more effective in that last period before the insurrection was the molecular agitation carried on by nameless workers, sailors, soldiers, winning converts one by one, breaking down the last doubts, overcoming the last hesitations. Those months of feverish political life had created innumerable cadres in the lower ranks, had educated hundreds and thousands of rough diamonds, who were accustomed to look on politics from below and not above, and for that very reason estimated facts and people with a keenness not always accessible to orators of the academic type. The Petrograd workers stood in the front rank – hereditary proletarians who had produced a race of agitators and organisers of extraordinary revolutionary temper and high political culture, independent in thought, word and action. Carpenters, fitters, blacksmiths, teachers of the unions and factories, each already had around him his school, his pupils, the future builders of the Republic of Soviets.”
The momentum toward a second revolution was building across Russia:
“The mass would no longer endure in its midst the wavering, the dubious, the neutral. It was striving to get hold of everybody, to attract, to convince, to conquer. The factories joined with the regiments in sending delegates to the front. The trenches got into connection with the workers and peasants nearby in the rear. In the towns along the front there was an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations in which the soldiers and sailors would bring their activity into accord with that of the workers and peasants. It was in this manner that the backward White Russian front was won over to Bolshevism.”
The Bolshevik influence spread across the country and beyond the ranks of the working class:
“The factories and regiments of Petrograd and Moscow were now more insistently knocking at the wooden gates of the villages. The workers would join together in sending delegates into their native provinces. The regiments would pass resolutions summoning the peasants to support the Bolsheviks. The workers in factories within the cities would make pilgrimages to the surrounding villages, distributing newspapers and laying the foundations of Bolshevik nuclei. From these rounds they would come back bringing in the pupil of their eyes a reflection from the flames of the peasant war.
“Bolshevism took possession of the country. The Bolsheviks became an unconquerable power. The people were with them. The city dumas of Kronstadt, Czaritsyn, Kostroma, Shuia, elected on a universal franchise, were wholly in the hands of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks received 52 per cent of the votes at an election to the district dumas of Moscow. In far-off and tranquil Tomsk, as also in the wholly non-industrial Samara, the Bolsheviks dominated in the duma. Out of four members of the Schlusselberg county zemstvo, three were Bolsheviks. In the Ligovsky county zemstvo, the Bolsheviks got 50 per cent of the votes. It was not so favourable everywhere, but everywhere it was changing in the same direction. The relative weight of the Bolshevik Party was on the rapid rise.
“The Bolshevisation of the masses revealed itself far more clearly, however, in the class organisations. The trade unions in the capital comprised over a half million workers. The Mensheviks themselves, who still had the administration of certain unions, felt that they were a relic of past days. No matter what parts of the proletariat might form an organisation, and no matter what its immediate aim might be, it would inevitably arrive at Bolshevik conclusions. And this was no accident: The trade unions, the factory committees, the economic and cultural assemblies of the working class, both permanent and transitory, were compelled by the whole situation, upon every private problem which might arise, to raise one and the same question: Who is the master of the house?”
Almost of its own accord, the dual power situation was beginning to resolve itself as the governmental power of the bourgeois state started to disintegrate and the Bolshevik-dominated workers’ organizations kept things running:
“The democratic municipal governments, only recently created, were dying away along with the organs of the governmental power. The most important tasks, such as guaranteeing water, light, fuel and food to the cities, were all falling more and more upon the soviets and other workers’ organisations. The factory committee of the lighting station of Petrograd was rushing about the city and the surroundings hunting up at one time coal, at another grease for the turbines, and getting them both through committees of other plants acting in opposition to their owners and the administration.
“No, the government of the soviets was not a chimera, an arbitrary construction, an invention of party theoreticians. It grew up irresistibly from below, from the breakdown of industry, the impotence of the possessors, the needs of the masses.
“The soviets had in actual fact become a government. For the workers, soldiers and peasants there remained no other road. No time left to argue and speculate about a Soviet government: it had to be realised.”
The situation came to a head over the convocation of a “Second All-Russian Congress” of the soviets from across the country. The reformist leadership elected at the First Congress in June had impeded the calling of a Second Congress realizing that they would surely be displaced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s organization, threatening to create a new body based on the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, forced the Central Executive Committee to relent, but the latter then made a final desperate attempt to backtrack. Trotsky describes the build up to the congress:
“The struggle for and against the Congress gave the last impulse in the localities to the Bolshevisation of the soviets. In a number of backward provinces, Smolensk for example, the Bolsheviks, either alone or together with the Left Social Revolutionaries, got their first majority only during this campaign for the Congress or during the election of delegates to it. Even in the Siberian congress of the soviets the Bolsheviks succeeded in the middle of October in creating with the Left Social Revolutionaries a permanent majority which easily placed its imprint upon the local soviets. On the 15th the Soviet of Kiev, by 159 votes against 28, with 3 abstaining, recognised the coming Congress of Soviets as ‘the sovereign organ of power.’ On the 16th the Congress of Soviets of the north-western region at Minsk – that is, in the centre of the Western front – declared the calling of the Congress unpostponable. On the 18th the Petrograd Soviet held elections for the coming Congress; 443 votes were cast for the Bolshevik list (Trotsky, Kamenev, Volodarsky, Yurenev and Lashevich); for the Social Revolutionaries, 162 – these all Left Social Revolutionaries, tending toward the Bolsheviks; for the Mensheviks 44. Under the presidency of Krestinsky a congress of the soviets of the Urals, where 80 out of the 110 delegates were Bolsheviks, demanded in the name of 223,900 organised workers and soldiers that the Congress of Soviets be called at the appointed date. On the same day, the 19th, an All-Russian conference of factory and shop committees, the most direct and indubitable representation of the proletariat in the whole country, came out for an immediate transfer of power to the soviets. On the 20th Ivanovo-Voznesensk declared all the soviets of the provinces to be ‘in a state of open and ruthless struggle against the Provisional Government,’ and summoned them to solve independently the industrial and administrative problems of their localities. Against this resolution, which meant the overthrow of local governmental authorities, only one voice was raised, with one abstaining. On the 22nd, the Bolshevik press published a new list of 56 organisations demanding a transfer of power to the soviets. These were all composed of the authentic masses of the people, and to a considerable degree armed masses.”
The dual power situation was headed for a decisive resolution: a new, authoritative soviet congress was scheduled to meet on 25 October, with a Bolshevik majority pledged to transferring all political power into the hands of the organs of workers’ rule. The Provisional Government, an exhausted relic of the February Revolution, would not, however, simply dissolve itself peacefully.
In September, Lenin began arguing for the seizure of power, but was met with resistance from within the Bolshevik leadership, particularly his long-time collaborators Zinoviev and Kamenev. On 10 October, the majority of the Bolshevik party leadership voted 10 to 2 to prepare for an armed insurrection. To oversee the task, a political bureau was established which included Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Sokolnikov, Bubnov and even Zinoviev and Kamenev, despite their opposition. A week later Kamenev published a critique, endorsed by Zinoviev, of the Bolshevik plans for insurrection on behalf of himself and Zinoviev – exposing the Bolsheviks’ intention to seize power. Lenin labeled them “strikebreakers” of the revolution, but was unsuccessful in having them expelled from the party for this act of sabotage. Trotsky noted:
“It is easier to theorise about a revolution afterward than absorb it into your flesh and blood before it takes place. The approach of an insurrection has inevitably produced, and always will produce, crisis in the insurrectionary parties. This is demonstrated by the experience of the most tempered and revolutionary party that history has up to this time known. It is enough that, a few days before the battle, Lenin found himself obliged to demand the expulsion from the party of his two closest and most prominent disciples. The recent attempts to reduce this conflict to ‘accidents’ of a personal character have been dictated by a purely churchly idealisation of the party’s past. Just as Lenin more fully and resolutely than others expressed in the autumn months of 1917 the objective necessity of an insurrection, and the will of the masses of revolution, so Zinoviev and Kamenev more frankly than others incarnated the blocking tendencies of the party, the moods of irresolution, the influence of petty bourgeois connections, and the pressure of the ruling classes.”
Originally proposed by the Mensheviks for the purposes of defending the capital, the Petrograd Soviet created a “Military-Revolutionary Committee” led by Trotsky with a Bolshevik majority and participation of Left Social Revolutionaries and anarchists. It was this committee that actually carried out the insurrection, as Carr recounts:
“In the early morning of October 25, 1917, the Bolshevik forces went into action. The key-points of the Provisional Government were occupied; the members of the Provisional Government were prisoners or fugitives; in the afternoon Lenin announced to a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet the triumph of ‘the workers’ and peasants’ revolution’; and in the evening the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, proclaimed the transfer of all power throughout Russia to Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. On the evening of October 26, 1917, the second and last meeting of the congress adopted the decrees on peace and on the land, and approved the composition of the Council of People’s Commissars, popularly known as Sovnarkom – the first Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.”
Trotsky observed: “Armed insurrection stands in the same relation to revolution that revolution as a whole does to evolution, it is the critical point when accumulating quantity turns with an explosion into quality.”
The scene in the Tauride Palace was tumultuous, as right-wing Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries walked out of the soviet, consigning themselves to what Trotsky aptly dubbed “the dustbin of history.” Including quotes from Ten Days That Shook the World, American communist John Reed’s classic account of the October Revolution, Trotsky recalls in The History of the Russian Revolution the moment that Lenin took the floor of the soviet:
“Lenin, whom the Congress has not yet seen, is given the floor for a report on peace. His appearance in the tribune evokes a tumultuous greeting. The trench delegates gaze with all their eyes at this mysterious being whom they had been taught to hate and whom they have learned without seeing him to love. ‘Now Lenin, gripping the edges of the reading-stand, let little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes. When it finished, he said simply, ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’”
Trotsky then cites the draft declaration read by Lenin to the soviet:
“‘The workers’ and peasants’ government [a bloc between Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries] created by the revolution of October 24-25, and resting upon the soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies, proposes to all the warring peoples and their governments to open immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.’ Just conditions exclude annexations and indemnities.… On its part the soviet government abolishes secret diplomacy and undertakes to publish the secret treaties concluded before October 25, 1917. Everything in those treaties directed toward the accruing of profit and privilege to the Russian landlords and capitalists, and the oppression of other peoples by the Great Russians, ‘the government declares unconditionally and immediately annulled.’ In order to enter upon negotiations, it is proposed to conclude an immediate armistice, for not less than three months at least. The workers’ and peasants’ government addresses its proposals simultaneously to ‘the governments and peoples of all warring countries … especially the conscious workers of the three most advanced countries,’ England, France and Germany, confident that it is they who will ‘help us successfully carry through the business of liberating the toilers and the exploited masses of the population from all slavery and all exploitation.’”
Lenin’s speech received a dramatic reception:
“Pride surges up of its own accord. Eyes shine. All are on their feet. No one is smoking now. It seems as though no one breathes. The pręsidium, the delegates, the guests, the sentries, join in a hymn of insurrection and brotherhood. ‘Suddenly, by common impulse,’ – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – ‘we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child. Alexandra Kollontai rapidly winked the tears back. The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.’ Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? ‘Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!’ The words of the song were freed of all qualifications. They fused with the decree of the government, and hence resounded with the force of a direct act. Everyone felt greater and more important in that hour. The heart of the revolution enlarged to the width of the whole world. ‘We will achieve emancipation. The spirit of independence, of initiative, of daring, those joyous feelings of which the oppressed in ordinary conditions are deprived – the revolution had brought them now … with our own hand!’ The omnipotent hand of those millions who had overthrown the monarchy and the bourgeoisie would now strangle the war. The Red Guard from the Vyborg district, the grey soldier with his scar, the old revolutionist who had served his years at hard labour, the young black-bearded sailor from the Aurora – all vowed to carry through to the end this ‘last and deciding fight.’ ‘We will build our own new world!’ We will build! In that word eagerly spoken from the heart was included already the future years of the civil war and the coming five-year periods of labour and privation. ‘Who was nothing shall be all!’”
The lowest of the low – workers and poor peasants of the backward Tsarist Empire – had taken a broom to their king, landlords and capitalists, sweeping them from the stage of history. How easy it seems after the fact; how hard to imagine before. But the October Revolution was not simply a Russian affair. On the streets of Petrograd, Russian workers had revealed to humanity how capitalism would be undone. Could the world ever be the same again?
Next: Part II: The Evolution of Revolution