By way of an introduction: The stages of the 1917 revolution (Part 2)

By way of an introduction

The stages of the 1917 revolution (Part 2)

By Francois Vercammen

The revolution of October 1917

At the start of September the pendulum swung to the left as sharply as it had swung right at the beginning of July.

Within the workers’ councils, the Bolshevik Party became a majority – first in Petrograd and Moscow. Within the party, Lenin, still in exile in Finland, put the seizure of power and the organization of the insurrection on the order of the day. He posed the question: When? How?

Between April and September the party learned to struggle for a majority within the soviets using the methods of workers’ democracy. From that point on it was through revolutionary initiative that these organs of workers’ democracy would become the new state apparatus.

Faced with this turning point, the Bolshevik Party suffered a grave internal crisis before a clear line could emerge. A “right” current, led by Zinoviev and Kamenev – constituting the majority at first in the central committee – hesitated, put off the moment for action, and wanted to reject the idea of insurrection. Between Lenin and Trotsky, both partisans of developed, at times, a debate over the precise tactic that should be followed in pursuit of it. The left wing of the party finally gained the upper hand in the central committee on October 10.

The national congress of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils was called for the end of the month. At the same time, the Military Revolutionary Committee, an organ of the Petrograd Soviet, with Trotsky at its head, responded to a provocation by the district military commandant, Polkovnikov (who wanted to dissolve the city garrison which was completely behind the revolution). Thus the insurrection began as a measure of self-defence. In a few hours the bourgeois apparatus of repression was dismantles in Petrograd. Political power was within reach. It was up to the national congress of workers councils to make a final decision. Its political composition was now transformed from what it had been in June 1917. Out of 650 delegates, the reformist bloc (the right-wing Mensheviks and SRs) controlled less than 100. The Bolsheviks, for their part, had an absolute majority of around 390 delegates. They were joined by the left-wing Mensheviks and left SRs. The reformists, a minority, walked out of the congress, shifting to the side of the counter-revolution.

A new executive committee of the workers’ councils – a real legislative body for the new soviet power – was elected on a pluralist basis: 67 Bolsheviks, 29 left SRs, with 20 seats given to different revolutionary groups. The executive committee, in turn, elected the first government of the new workers’ state. “We begin the construction of a new socialist order,” declared Lenin.

A joyous and painless revolution at the outset! But it would have to pass through terrible trials during the civil war years, 1918-1920, before consolidating itself.

The parties of the revolution

The democratic self-organization of the popular masses is a fundamental and model aspect of the Russian Revolution. But this did not determine, by itself, the question of what politics would actually be pursued by the “counter-power”.

This self-organization encompasses a plurality of parties, with their specific programs, tactics, activities, etc.  During the Russian revolution it was the interaction between these parties and the territorial councils which determined the outcome (the trade union movement was, for its part, extremely weak, and the activities of the factory committees remained subordinate, although important).

The political parties organized themselves very late and in a particular fashion (one which reflects the social reality of that epoch in Russia: a despotic state, paternalistic and totalitarian at the same time, overwhelming, suffocating or absorbing “civil society”).

The Kadets: In 1917, aside from various monarchist groups which had become marginalized, the Kadets (“Constitutional Democrats”), constituted the main party of the dominant classes. This party formed the first provisional government, in the wake of the February 1917 revolution. Muliukov – professor, historian, and ideologue – was, along with Gutchkov, its principal leader.

The Workerists: Kerensky led, in 1917, the Popular Socialists, or Trudoviks (workerists). By then quite weak numerically, the party had known its hour of glory in the pseudo-parliaments of 1906-1914. There it represented the peasant masses who had been awakened to political life after 1905. This party grouped together political personalities, relying on the aspirations and dissatisfactions of the conservative pretty-bourgeoisie in the provinces and in the countryside. Kerensky himself became a figure on whom the big bourgeoisie could rely.

The parties of the Second International: Three parties, all of which were members of the Second International, contested for the allegiance of the worker and peasant masses. The Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, and the Social-Revolutionaries (SRs). All claimed to be socialist, that is to say Marxist, and revolutionary. Except for small minorities, each had, in 1914, adopted a hostile attitude toward the imperialist war. Therefore, the process of political clarification was complicated. It was necessary for these parties to be tested in the fire of battle during the eight months of dual power. The events of the summer of 1917 were conclusive: splits between left and the right wings of SRs and Mensheviks; revolutionary unity within the Bolshevik party. This did not eliminate a certain continuing degree of political confusion among the rank and file and in the periphery of each of these parties, and also between them.

The SRs: Officially reconstituted in 1902, this party rested on a long revolutionary tradition which originated in the middle of the 19th century. It had been a strong political adversary to the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party). Completely hegemonic in the peasant movement, the SRs also had a strong influence in big urban enterprises. Poorly organized and confused politically, the SRs helped – between February and August, 1917 – to guarantee and indispensable social base for the class collaborations government, of which the Mensheviks constituted a political head.

During summer of 1917, the SRs split between a left, revolutionary wing (Spiridonova, Kamkov), very close to the positions of the Bolsheviks, and a reformist right-wing (Chernov, Gotz), collaborating closely with the Mensheviks. By the end of 1917, the left SRs largely surpassed the right influence.

The Mensheviks: They formed after 1903 as the “revolutionary right” wing of the RSDLP. The showdown of 1917 was not only time that their majority (Dan, Lieber, Tseretelli) engaged in incurably class-collaborationist politics. They would pay the price in a left split, led by Martov and Martynov. These two genuine “centrists”, opposed the war, had a base in the workers councils, and favoured a socialist revolution in 1917. But they hesitated and vacillated when confronted with the key problem of the revolution: the seizure and exercise of power.

The Bolsheviks: A faction within the RSDLP until 1912, the Bolsheviks became the key revolutionary party in 1913-1914, gaining the allegiance of worker cadres in the cities and the leadership of a general strike in Petrograd. The consolation, implantation and growth of the party came at the cost of internal struggles and debates: In 1914 there was a departure of the right-wing national chauvinists; in March and April 1917 the growth of a new opportunist wing (Stalin-Kamenev-Zinoviev), a majority – ready to support the liberal government, to accept the continuation of the war – which was opposed by the radical theses of Lenin. In July there was a struggle against an ultraleft current in favour of immediately seizing power and a fight against sectarianism on the part of an older layer of cadre who were reluctant to fuse with other currents (including Trotsky’s). In August there was a debate about revolutionary initiatives and shifting the foundation for workers democracy from the territorial councils to the factory committees. Finally, in October, there was the debate with the right wing of the party over insurrection, a discussion which was replayed again and again, in many different keys, during subsequent years.

But in October, the Bolsheviks were a party of the masses which engaged in the struggle for power – a party recognized and supported by the popular movement.

The Mezhrayontsi: Trotsky, on the basis of his own revolutionary positions, had been a member of – or had been dragged along by – the Menshevik faction. He broke with them in August 1914. In July 1917, he re-joined the Bolsheviks, along with the Mezhrayontsi (the “Interdistrict” or “intercraft” committees).

Active and influential in Petrograd, this revolutionary Marxist group was a small minority: 60 to 80 members in 1915, 150 on the eve of February 1917, 300 in April (the Bolsheviks were 16,000 at that time in Petrograd), 4,000 in July – when the Bolshevik Party could count 180,000 members throughout the country.

The minority currents: The phenomenon of the “intercraft” committees underlines the existence of many revolutionary currents and groups, marginal on the scale of the entire country but important at times in one city, one workplace, one sector. Among them were the anarchists, the revolutionary syndicalists, the “maximalists” (an ultraleft split from the SRs), the Menshevik Internationalists (Martov, Martynov), the United Social-Democratic Internationalists (small but influential because of the journal Novy Zhizn – New Life – of Maxim Gorky).

The international counter-revolution

The victory of October 1917 had powerful international repercussions. The call for an immediate end to the slaughter of the war and for the punishment of those responsible – ruling classes of Europe – raised hopes in the trenches and combativity in the workplace.

The government signed an armistice in November 1918. But many countries were already undergoing revolutionary crises – imperial Germany first of all. Along with Tsarist Russia, Prussian militarism was the principal barrier against subversion in the European continent after 1789 (the French Revolution). The country was destabilized by a rapid succession of struggles. Between 1918 and 1923, the German proletariat tried to “speak Russian”. But it lacked a revolutionary party at its head, with the same combativity and organizational tradition. The revolutionary wave was crushed for the first time in January 1919. It reappeared no less powerfully in 1920, then in 1921 and 1923.

A union was conceivable between the USSR – a vast country with rich agricultural lands, but backward and living under precarious circumstances – and a socialist Germany – powerful, industrial, situated in the heart of Europe with a large proletariat constituting a mortal enemy to European reaction. Confronted with this potential “socialist bloc”, a large imperialist coalition came together. It consisted of the German army (defeated but still imposing), a Russian army (out of power, but with which the White generals, that is the counter-revolutionaries, launched a civil war), and the military forces of France, England, and the United States – the “victors” in the war. This coalition invaded the USSR.

In the political arena, the activity of social democracy, having passed to the side of the capitalist system, was decisive. Dominant within the world working class, it cut off solidarity, discredited the USSR, and blocked the development of a revolutionary movement in Western Europe. It had a single goal: to crush the socialist revolution and restabilize the bourgeois order. The USSR was devastated by the civil war. In Finland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, the proletariat was defeated – at times with the aide of private armies of a new type: the “Freikorps” in Germany, the “fascists” in Italy.

In the USSR, six years of uninterrupted war from 1914 to 1920, provoked an economic, social, and human disaster. The workers’ state, completely isolated, stood fast. But the construction of socialism suffered badly under these frighteningly difficult conditions.

The end of a cycle

1917-1923: The first cycle of the international revolution came to an end. Another cycle began, one of capitalist stabilization on a world scale. In the USSR the situation was favourable for the emergence of a privileged bureaucracy with Stalin at its head. Lenin, dying, undertook a “last struggle” against the bureaucracy between 1921 and 1923. In western Europe social-democracy (the “stinking corpse” as Rosa Luxemburg called it) renewed itself. It (re)gained the leadership of the workers’ movement in most countries. Mass trade unions were consolidated during the 1920s, as a result of reforms imposed on the bourgeoisie – which feared revolution and mass struggle.

PART 1 here 

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