Red October: The working class takes power

01 November 2017

IN THE February Revolution of 1917, the workers and soldiers of Petrograd rose in spontaneous revolt against the hardships caused by two and a half years of war. Civilians were verging on starvation, while those fighting suffered horrendous losses – 1.5 million had been killed, five million wounded, with millions more taken prisoner.

Demonstrations by women demanding bread and freedom, a general strike and a mass mutiny of the huge Petrograd garrison brought down the Bloody Tsar Nicholas II, and with him fell the entire 300 year-old Romanov autocracy. The Petrograd Soviet, a council of workers and soldiers’ delegates, first formed in the failed revolution of 1905, took over the running of the city. Similar events followed in Moscow and in other cities across the vast empire. The hated police force effectively melted away and armed workers and soldiers kept order. Real power lay in the hands of the Soviets – since the soldiers would take no orders unless countersigned by their councils.

By early March the Petrograd Soviet already had 1,300 members, and within a week had more than doubled to 3,000. Since the plenary session of the Soviet became unwieldy an executive of fourteen members was elected.

The example of the capital was emulated throughout the country. Soviets of various types were rapidly set up, and by the beginning of September their number was officially estimated at 600, theoretically representing some 23 million voters. The first all Russian congress of the Soviets, which was held in June, formally established the All-Russian Central Executive committee, an assembly of over 250 members which, however, was dominated by the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet.

In backward Russia the bourgeoisie and its parties were a weak force and the first provisional government, made up of members of the old Tsarist parliament (the Duma) was propped up by the dominant parties of the Russian peasantry and the working class – the peasant based Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s), and the opportunist wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Mensheviks.

Mensheviks and sr’s alike were convinced that, as this was a bourgeois, i.e. democratic, revolution, the Liberal bourgeoisie should lead it. Thus they allowed, indeed encouraged, the representatives of the bourgeois parties from the old Tsarist parliament to take ministerial office. But Russia’s bourgeoisie was no revolutionary class. In line with the other rulers of the warring Great Powers it was an imperialist bourgeoisie, bent on plunder. Hence they were intent on continuing the war with Germany. The “socialists” who wanted them to take power were thus dragged into supporting a war that they now pitched as a “defence of democracy” or a “defence of the revolution.”

The Bolsheviks (since 1903 a separate faction of rsdlp but after 1912 a separate party) were still a minority within the soviets. They had enormous experience of struggle over many years including initial illegality, then in 1905-7 revolutionary mass action including leading an uprising in Moscow in 1905. In 1910-14 they were working in semi-legal conditions, establishing a daily paper Pravda (Truth). After 1914 they once again faced acute repression during the war. This had made them a tough and disciplined party of committed revolutionary activists. But this party was neither the undemocratic caricature portrayed by the Social Democrats and anarchists, nor was it the monolithic party the bureaucratic followers of Stalin later idealised.

In reality, it was only through a vigorous democratic debate over its fundamental goals and the necessary changes of tactics, from April 1917, that made the socialist outcome of the revolution possible at all.

Following his return from exile, Lenin won the party away from its initial position of giving critical support to the bourgeois provisional government, to the objective of a workers’ and peasants’ government, based exclusively on the soviets and the armed people. It was this party and this programme that would address the tasks of solving the dire living conditions of the masses: ending the war and distributing the landlords’ huge estates to the peasantry. These tasks were summed up in the famous slogans “Bread! Peace! Land!” as well as “All Power to the Soviets!”

From April onwards the Bolsheviks argued that the Russian Revolution must not to rest content with a “democratic” imperialist government, it needed a workers’ government based on the soviets. That this was the correct and necessary path, one rooted in an estimation of the real contradictions of Russian development and the inability of the ‘democratic bourgeoisie’ to secure the victory of the revolution, was proved positively in October 1917.

For six months the revolution oscillated between advance and retreat. The April Days saw powerful street demonstrations against the war, triggered by the War Minister Pavel Milyukov’s pledge to Britain and France to fight on to the end. This crisis saw him replaced by Alexander Kerensky, one of the vice chairmen of the Soviet and a member of a small party, the Trudoviks. In practice he increasingly became a free agent balancing between the bourgeois minsters and the Soviet Executive.

Another major success for the Bolsheviks came in June when a demonstration, called by the Soviet Executive was dominated by their slogans – ‘All Power to the Soviets’ and ‘Down with the capitalist ministers’. Buoyed by their success, a second mass upheaval was prepared in July in response to a new military offensive planned by Kerensky. Calls to overthrow the Provisional government were raised by massive armed demonstrations in which sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base played a major role. However, the idea of overthrowing the government was opposed by Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership, though the party’s military organisations had been drawn into it. An insurrection might just have succeeded in Petrograd but it would not have been supported at the front or in the countryside.

When the movement abated the government presented this as a failed Bolshevik coup and severely repressed the Bolsheviks, suspending the right to due process and restoring the death penalty. Lenin went into hiding and Leon Trotsky who was working closely with the Bolsheviks, joining them in August, was imprisoned.

Despite this setback, Bolshevik influence amongst the working class began to recover at the expense of the Mensheviks and sr’s, as the hopeless war dragged on and living conditions for the masses continued to deteriorate. The Soviets were in fact showing themselves to be flexible and democratic bodies, which, because delegates could be recalled, reflected the developing political consciousness of the masses, much more accurately and responsively than any parliament or municipal council could do.

The lead up to October

Following the July Days, Kerensky was appointed prime minister, and started plotting a military counter-revolution alongside the main bourgeois parties, and Lavr Kornilov, the new commander-in-chief.

Very soon the naive Kerensky was outmanoeuvred by the overconfident general, who ordered him to resign and hand over power to Kornilov as dictator. But Kerensky had intended that he, not the general, should become the Napoleon Bonaparte of the Russian Revolution. Alarmed to find himself a potential victim rather than victor, he turned to the Petrograd Soviet for aid.

In turn the terrified leaders of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionary Party formed a “committee for struggle with the counterrevolution”. They implored the Bolsheviks, a party whose newspapers they had closed, and leaders imprisoned, to join them. From hiding just over the border in Finland, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to form a military united not only with the Mensheviks and sr’s but with Kerensky and the provisional government, in order to defeat the advancing counter-revolutionaries.

When the Bolsheviks objected that a united front would mean abandoning the fight against Kerensky, Lenin replied that since the Bolsheviks were the only force who could mobilise the working class against the immediate danger of the military coup, this course of action would open the road to defeating Kerensky and the parties which backed him afterwards. It was agreed and the factory Red Guards, which had been demobilised and disarmed during the repression following the July Days, were quickly reformed and rearmed.

In the event, Kornilov’s coup rapidly disintegrated as revolutionary workers held up troop movements on the railways and Bolshevik agitators enlightened his misled soldiers to the fact that there was no German takeover underway in Petrograd. Even Kornilov’s “Savage Division” of Caucasus mountaineers and the Cossacks were won over. In early September Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and a number of other Bolshevik leaders were released from prison.

On September 2, for the first time, the Petrograd Soviet adopted, by a margin of 279 to 115, a Bolshevik resolution, proposed by Kamenev calling for “a government of the representatives of the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry.” On September 5 the Moscow Soviet followed suit by 355 to 254 votes. In the aftermath of the failed coup local Soviets all over Russia finally began to endorse the Bolshevik slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets’.

At this stage, the slogan meant a Menshevik-SR government (who were a majority in the soviets) that the Bolsheviks would support against the counterrevolution but not take positions in. Instead they would remain a democratic opposition within the soviets, calling for the government to take radical measures to deliver peace, redistribution of the land, and workers’ control of production.

But it soon became clear not just to the Bolsheviks, but to broader numbers of workers and soldiers, that the Mensheviks and SR leaders in the Soviet would never make a break with the capitalists and the imperialist war.

On September 12, whilst still across the border in Finland, Lenin finished one of his most his most important theoretical works: The State and Revolution. It dealt with a theme that he had been arguing since the outbreak of February Revolution, in his ‘Letters from Afar’; namely that the working class could no longer limit itself to the goal of even the most democratic bourgeois republic.

For Lenin now the task was to create a workers’ government supported by the poor peasantry. It had to be based on the soviets, not on a parliament. ‘The State and Revolution’ argued that the 1871 Paris Commune had shown that the working class could not take over the bourgeois state as it was with its bureaucracy and standing army, its police force and its judiciary. It had to break this apparatus of repression and replace it with the rule of bodies of recallable delegates elected directly by the workers in their factories, the soldiers in their barracks and the peasants in their villages. The armed people had to replace the standing army and its officer corps. Events since February had begun this process, dissolving the police force, democratising the army and creating the soviets.

On September 14 Lenin also finished another work; less famous but of enormous importance; ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How To Combat It’. Here he presents a detailed outline of what the Bolsheviks will do to save the country from the economic breakdown that the war is bringing. It outlines a series of what in the 1920s and 1930s came to be called transitional demands. These include imposing workers’ control of production and distribution of goods, nationalisation of the banks and industrial syndicates, abolition of commercial secrecy, measures to prevent financial collapse, universal duty to work, etc.

In a chapter called Can we Go Forward if We fear To Advance Towards Socialism, Lenin concludes:

“Universal labour conscription, introduced, regulated and directed by the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, will still not be socialism, but it will no longer be capitalism. It will be a tremendous step towards socialism, a step from which, if complete democracy is preserved, there can no longer be any retreat back to capitalism, without unparalleled violence being committed against the masses.”

Lenin’s fight for the Insurrection

On September 14 Lenin sent the first of a series of letters to the Bolshevik Central Committee in Petrograd, which read:

“The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands……. The present task must be an armed uprising in Petrograd and Moscow (with its region), the seizing of power and the overthrow of the government.”

Feeling the ground shifting beneath its feet Kerensky’s Provisional Government called a “Democratic Conference”, which met from September 14-22, with 1,200 delegates from various parties and local government bodies. But it turned out to be just another talking shop, deciding little and, led by Trotsky, the Bolshevik delegation cruelly exposed its inability to solve any of the big issues. The conference finally elected a Provisional Council of the Republic, called for short the Pre-parliament.

On Lenin’s and Trotsky’s proposal, the Bolshevik Central Committee decided that the Bolsheviks should attend, denounce walk out of the pre-parliament.

Red October

By the beginning of October Bolshevik membership has risen to 43,000 in Petrograd from 16,000 in April. Lenin was increasingly impatient with the Party leadership, fearing they would delay the organisation of an insurrection until after Kerensky had struck. He wrote:

“Unfortunately, vacillations are to be noted at the top levels of our Party, a “fear”, as it were, of the struggle for power, a tendency to substitute resolutions, protests, and congresses for this struggle.”

The Bolshevik party’s right wing, led by Kamenev, Alexei Rykov and David Ryazanov, were vehemently against the Party’s course towards insurrection and a Bolshevik dominated Soviet government. They were still arguing for a coalition government of the moderate socialists and that nothing decisive could be done till the Constituent Assembly met. Elections to this body had been repeatedly postponed but were now due in November.

From this point on a major debate raged in the party between the “Old Bolsheviks” who in reality still clung to the old perspective. By All Power to the Soviets they meant waiting until the Constituent Assembly “where we will be such a strong opposition party that in a country of universal suffrage our opponents will be compelled to make concessions to us at every step, or we will form, together with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, non-party peasants, etc., a ruling bloc which will fundamentally have to carry out our programme.”

For Kamenev and Co. only when the proletarian revolution broke out in western Europe might it be possible for the Bolsheviks alone to take power and to pass from the minimum programme of democratic reforms to the capitalist system and begin to carry out socialist measures.

Lenin argued passionately against Kamenev’s position but he also distrusted Trotsky’s argument of timing the uprising to coincide with the opening of the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, on October 20.

Lenin feared that the Central Committee was thinking of leaving the decision in the hands the delegates of the Congress of Soviets. This might waver, debate and debate, and meanwhile Kerensky and the government would be given warning to prepare a blow against the congress. He insisted that the party had to take responsibility for overthrowing the government and then place the power in the hands of the Soviets.

Finally on 10 October the 12-person Bolshevik central committee after a debate lasting ten hours finally approved Lenin’s short resolution “recognising… that an armed uprising is inevitable and that its time has come, the Central Committee suggests that all party organisations be guided by this.” Kamenev was the sole vote against this.

On 12 October the Petrograd Soviet formed a Military Revolutionary Committee, ostensibly to protect the Soviet and other workers’ organisations against either a looming German offensive against the city or the despatch of revolutionary units of the garrison to the front planned by Kerensky. In fact it was the key body responsible for organising the insurrection.

Soon the Military Revolutionary Committee was overseeing the winning over of the garrison, barracks by barracks, the deployment of the Red Guards, and conducting a series of mass meetings in the factories and on the streets.

But on October 18, Kamenev and Zinoviev published an article in author Maxim Gorky’s newspaper Novya Zhizn revealing and opposing the Bolsheviks’ plan for the insurrection. They claimed that they were only exercising their right to express publicly a difference of opinion. Lenin responded that “after a decision to strike has been taken by the party centre, only blacklegs [scabs] can carry on agitation among the lower bodies against that decision”. He proposed their expulsion from the party, but the Central Committee baulked at this, fearing to split the party at such a decisive moment.

For a moment there was consternation. Would the insurrection have to be postponed because the government knew everything? Fortunately the government was vicious but impotent. On October 24 it tried to close the Bolshevik newspaper Rabocchii Put’s printing presses, to raise the Neva bridges (cutting off the main workers’ districts from the government quarters) and to take control of the Smolny Institute, the meeting place of the Petrograd Soviet and headquarters of the Revolutionary Military Committee and Bolshevik Central Committee. But the government organisers of this could only find 18-year old military officer cadets to carry out their orders and they were easily repulsed without bloodshed. This action was the signal to finally unleash the insurrection.

By nightfall, Red Guards and sailors from the cruiser Aurora controlled all the bridges across the Neva and all roads leading into the city. The Aurora moved up to the Nikolaevsky Bridge, within easy range of the Winter Place.

By morning of October 25 the Red Guards and soldiers had seized the General Post Office, the Nikolaevsky bridge, the Warsaw and Baltic rail stations, the power stations, the State Bank, the central telephone exchange, and main Government buildings. The Winter Palace, General Staff headquarters, and the Mariinsky Palace where the Pre-Parliament was still meeting, remained in the hands of the Provisional Government.

That afternoon the Petrograd Soviet met in Smolny with Trotsky in the chair. He announced:

“In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee I declare that the Provisional Government has ceased to exist.” Lenin was the next speaker,
“Comrades, the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, about the necessity of which the Bolsheviks have always spoken, has been accomplished. What is the significance of this workers’ and peasants’ revolution? Its significance is, first of all, that we shall have a Soviet government, our own organ of power, in which the bourgeoisie will have no share whatsoever. The oppressed masses will themselves create a power. The old state apparatus will be shattered to its foundations and a new administrative apparatus set up in the form of the Soviet organisations. From now on, a new phase in the history of Russia begins, and this, the third Russian revolution, should in the end lead to the victory of socialism.”

At 10:40 in the evening, the Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets finally convened in the Smolny. Meanwhile the assault on the Winter Place was underway. It was more an infiltration and disarming of the defenders, than the dramatic storming depicted in Eisenstein’s film October – no one was killed. During the night the cruiser Aurora and the Peter and Paul Fortress train their guns on the Palace and a few blank shots were fired.

On the news that the Palace was under fire the Mensheviks and sr’s staged a walkout from the Congress melodramatically declaring their intention to die with the ministers. (In fact they are turned back by Red Guards before they can reach it and no minister died). Trotsky, the congress’ president, told them as they departed “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history!”

By 2am, the Winter Palace was captured and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko of the MRC arrested the Provisional Government, completing the victory of the revolution in Petrograd.
Finally at 3am on October 26 the Soviet Congress got down to business. John Reed in Ten Days That the Shook the World described the scene:

“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.’”

The Congress of Soviets issued a number of resolutions drafted by Lenin: a Declaration To Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants!, plus a Decree on Peace and a Decree on Land. In addition, the formation of a Soviet government – the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom), chaired by Lenin – was announced.

The Bolsheviks had come to power and a new era in the history of the world had begun – the era of the working class socialist revolution.

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