Imagining Other…


POWER AND PROTEST  - social movements in the 20th century.




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                                                                                                                                                Chapter 1 Labour Movement


                                                                                                                                                 Power and Protest: Social Movements Contents Page



                                                                                                                                                Bookmarks: see after Introduction.


The Labour Movement, continued.


Chapter 2: The Russian Revolution – case-study.




This section deals with a specific event that represents perhaps the high-water mark of the labour movement in the 20th century: the Russian Revolution of 1917, which installed the first regime in the world to call itself socialist.  My choice of this topic is not intended to show my support for the revolution or the regime: I do not know precisely what position I would have taken up had I been alive at the time (and all such questions are by definition hypothetical!). 


However, for me personally the events represent a set of high ideals that were sadly not achieved. In my view there was in Russia at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, a social movement by workers and ordinary citizens to gain more control over their lives – but a mixture of personalities, circumstances and erroneous ideologies led to a regime that in fact betrayed this ideal.


It is hoped that this discussion will raise such questions as:


Was the revolution a genuine worker-led change of power?

What factors contributed to the successful uprising?

Were there any features of the revolution that contributed to the eventual loss of control by workers over the regime?


The Russian revolution was, of course, an event that changed the world and shaped the 20th century.

It is also the most dramatic instance, almost certainly, of the power of the labour movement. Consequently it seems a good example to take in order to throw light on how the labour movement evolved, and the problems and issues it faced.





RSDLP      Bolsheviks          Lenin          Trotsky       Trotskyism          desertions





1 Summary: events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917.


1.    Russia was under a form of dynastic absolute rule, by the Tsars, until the beginning of the 20th century.

2.    There was no industrialisation in Russia until the late 19th/early 20th century, modern western technology was eventually imported.

3.    There had been peasant uprisings (from the 17th century) and a number of attempted military coups which had failed, all of which had been suppressed savagely.

4.    The influence of western intellectual ideas split opinion among the intelligentsia (between “slavophiles” and “westerners”).

5.    The population at large felt insecure, and was suffering from heavy taxation for arms.

6.    There was little security at work: especially in agriculture, since there was a rapidly growing population & at the end of the 19th century a rapidly growing working-class.

7.    There were only limited responses by the regime to any demands for democracy – zemstva (regional assemblies) were set up but without real power; 1861 saw the “emancipation” of the peasantry, which led to the growth of a kulak (rich peasants) [sub-]class.

8.    Since the state remained authoritarian (and was backed by the Church), strikes were de facto political.

9.    Students and the “intelligentsia” (intellectual elite) formed the main ideological opposition to the state. Since there was no democracy, protest became radical e.g. the narodniks (populists), and there were other revolutionary groups, which did not shrink from violence. In 1881 Tsar Aleksander II was assassinated.

10.           Secret workers’ unions were forming. There were demonstrations, war with Japan, trouble in Poland, Finland etc.

11.           The main political parties were:

-         Marxist: Social Democrat (from 1880s);

-         the Social Revolutionaries (SR), who were largely peasant-based

-         the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), who were liberal in political outlook.

12.           Workers set up soviets – with their own social and cultural institutions.

13.           Defeat by Japan. Costs of war were high.

14.           1906: Duma (national assembly) set up, but with very limited powers.

15.           1911 Prime Minister Stolypin is assassinated.  From 1914 many strikes occur. The Bolsheviks’ influence was growing (the party was formed after a split in the Social Democrats)

16.           First World War – supported widely in the country, but not by Lenin (who was in exile)

17.           War going badly, war-production leading to hunger and discontent. Soldiers “vote with their feet”.

18.           1917: Strikes having an effect – mutinies/desertions among soldiers, Tsar abdicates. Provisional Government set up (February), under Kerensky – but he wanted to continue the war and refused agricultural reform.

19.           Situation of “dual power” – the Government and the workers’ soviets vying for control over the towns. Peasants begin seizing land. Factory committees urge workers’ control. Lenin returns from exile (April) National Congress of Soviets (June).

20.           October Revolution – Lenin promises peace, land and freedom, and a Constituent Assembly to draw up a constitution. This was disbanded after the Bolsheviks failed to secure a majority in the elections.


2 More Detail on this history:  (Main sources: Service 1991, Seton-Watson 1967; for other sources, see booklist.)


Through out its history, Russia had a series of absolute rulers: the Tsars were the ruling dynasty, and they were regarded by much of the peasantry as divinely appointed. (It is said when peasants visited Lenin’s tomb they crossed themselves, since they thought of him as a tsar!). Since the early 17th century the Romanov family ruled.  There had never been, throughout all this time and even into the 19th century, an elective assembly. No political parties were allowed, the press was censored, and public meetings were banned.  The police acted on behalf of the authorities, but exercised their power in an arbitrary fashion.


Britain and Europe had, by the 18th century, achieved a state of political stability, and the industrial revolution (partly driven by the non-conformist work ethic, and thanks to easily available resources such as coal and iron) had transformed life: success in agricultural production enabled people to move into the towns; a new merchant class arose, as well as a new proletarian class. Russia, in contrast, did not have these advantages: it is a vast country (even when trains were developed it takes a week to cross!), it had not produced an agricultural surplus, resources such as coal and iron were geographically very far apart, there was no independent trading or merchant class, as well as no democracy. These geopolitical factors were highly significant. Consequently industrialisation did not occur until very late: towards the end of the 19th century in fact.


So there were, before the 19th century, two broad social groupings: the aristocracy, allied to the (Russian Orthodox) church, and the peasantry. A small but significant intellectual class emerged later, but the country was polarised (and intellectuals, as we shall see, were divided in their loyalties).  In contrast, the English had reached an accommodation with the monarchy in the 18thc. (Britain is to this day a “constitutional monarchy”), and the French had removed their absolute rulers with the revolution of 1789.


In Russia, there had been frequent uprisings amongst the peasantry: the best known example being led by Pugachev, against the Tsar Catherine II in 1773. But these failed: perhaps they were too “extreme” – that is, they did not formulate any reformist demands so there could never be any compromise or agreement, and the uprisings were simply put down. At times, (e.g. the 1825 revolutionary conspiracy of army officers, known as the Decembrists) the army attempted a coup, but they too were crushed. The Bolsheviks were to learn from this history the importance of good organisation (and secrecy, to try to outwit the government’s spies).


However, Russia (unlike China) was not cut off from Europe: aristocrats spoke French at court, rather than Russian, and there was a strong interest in European ideas and technology – the best illustration being that of Tsar Peter the Great, who visited the dockyards in Europe, around 1700, and took back ship-building techniques to improve the Russian fleet. Later on in the 18th century, Catherine the Great had contact with European philosophers of the Enlightenment, in particular Voltaire. A highly significant influence on Russian history came through the spread of “western” ideas: liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights and democracy, scientific reasoning etc (all of which, of course, conflicted with the state of affairs in Russia); and later Marxism, which provided a radical explanation of the class divide in Russia, and which began to motivate critics of the regime to work out a strategy for change. Bakunin translated the Communist manifesto into Russian in 1869, and Capital was translated into Russian not long after.


Intellectuals in Russia (known as the intelligentsia) were soon divided, however, over whether the country could copy the political and social changes that had occurred in Western Europe, or whether the Russian traditions of social organisation (e.g. the peasant commune, or mir) should form the basis of future society. Those who wanted to follow the “west” were known as westerners, those who believed in building on indigenous institutions were slavophiles.


Most of the Tsars, however, held on to their autocratic powers: ironically, the occasional attempt at liberalisation only encouraged the critics and radicals, who then made further demands that led to another crack-down and more authoritarianism.


By the end of the 19th century, Russia was feeling insecure, externally and internally: there were wars in Europe that threatened their borders, or which could have drawn them in (the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the wars of unification of Germany; conflict in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans) and Russia itself was at war with Japan in 1905, a war it was to lose (see below).


Internally there was the problem of holding together the peoples of such a vast land mass.  Russia at this time was, you might say, an empire, since it included very different populations in the Caucasus, Asia, the Ukraine, Siberia, the Baltic; as well as groups of other nationalities e.g. Poles. It is worth stressing that Russians comprised only 4/5 of the population. The autocratic powers of the state were used to impose heavy taxation to keep up the arms industry, and there was growing anger at the tax burden among the peasantry.


Industrialisation began in the 19th century, under Tsars Aleksander III (1845 – 1894) and Nikolai II (1868 – 1918).  The state provided financial support to industry, but also encouraged western businesses to move in, until only one-ninth of industrial capital stock was state-owned, whereas

47 % of securities were foreign-owned. The one advantage Russia had in industrialising after other countries was that she could import modern technology and knowledge - Trotsky was to argue this speeded up proletarianisation: factories were large, (by 1914, two out of every five workers were in large plants which employed over 1,000) and workers were thrust abruptly into modern working conditions. Extensive railways were constructed to improve communication across the country, (this, too, required large-scale industrial processes). Sergei Witte - later advisor to Tsar Nicholas II - took on this work from 1870 onwards.


Progress in industry was rapid: by 1914 Russia was the fifth largest world industrial power, the 4th largest extractor/producer of coal, iron and steel. Oil was also being extracted.  There followed a rapid growth of consumer demand – e.g. for better clothing, boosting the textile industry. Although agriculture was still rather susceptible to adverse weather conditions, Russia still became world’s largest cereal exporter.


These changes brought about problems of course: some areas of production were weak, (like hot-house plants grown too rapidly), and all were vulnerable to world economic cycles. The working-class grew rapidly to 15 million in 1914, four times what was in 1860. More schools were established by the state, so that the workers could gain in literacy, and by 1918 literacy rates were 66%. Factory workers were poor, and work was dangerous. Hours were long, and housing was poor. A ban on trade unions was maintained: strikes became frequent, but not as widespread as might have been had unions been legal (in other parts of Europe at the time, such as Italy, workers were better organised and led, and there was widespread and sometimes effective industrial unrest). 


The regime needed to accommodate growing demands for democracy, but its response was, typically, very limited.  In 1809 a Council of Ministers was set up, on the advice of Michael Speransky, a trusted advisor to the Tsar (Seton-Watson, 1967, p 104). He also proposed other changes, including the setting up of several levels of duma but any law passed by the State Duma would have to be confirmed by the Tsar. These reforms were not carried through.


The Church supported the state; there was widespread nepotism and corruption. Some enlightened labour laws were passed, but the army was used to quell any strikes – the consequence of all this was that industrial conflict became political.


In 1861 the serfs were “emancipated” (set free) – in other words, the feudal conditions in Russia were overturned (the end of feudalism had occurred in Europe hundreds of years earlier - although in America slavery was not abolished until a few years later than the Russian emancipation of the serfs). A telling anecdote that shows how close to our times this all was: Khruschev (General Secretary of the Communist Party in the post-World War II war period) used to say that his grandparents were serfs, who had once been exchanged between landowners for a pair of hunting dogs. However the first effect of this emancipation was to leave the peasants poorer than before, as most of the land remained in the hands of landlords – much of it having been given to them as compensation for freeing the serfs! Later, some landlords abandoned their land, and peasants took it over. Other landlords became successful capitalist farmers. The peasants grew resentful of having to rent from gentry landowners; and those peasants who did become richer (kulaks) were also resented.


The regime also antagonised university students: deans were appointed, appointed by the government, students had to wear uniforms, and grants were niggardly (similar conditions led to an uprising in France in 1968, but the current worsening of students’ conditions in Britain and elsewhere doesn’t seem likely to produce the same degree of anger…).  Students were also frustrated by the fact that getting a degree did not guarantee a job. The state was a major employer, but the system was highly bureaucratic.


As mentioned already, a significant sector of society – the intelligentsia – was growing, especially from the 1860s. Given the repressive conditions, organisations had often to be clandestine. The first radical or revolutionary groups in Russia were oriented to “the people” – such groups were called narodniks” (populists, in other words), and there were movements in which intellectuals and students would go “to the people” to get support – Alexander Herzen was the first to call on students to go to the people, and later some of these “movements” were led by the anarchist Bakunin. The largest narodnik organisations were Zemlia i Volia (Land and Freedom), and a group that split from it called Narodnaia Volia (People’s Will). Some of these resorted to violence, and in 1881, the Tsar Aleksander II was assassinated  by members of Narodnaia Volia, and the group was destroyed in the reaction by the government.  By the end of the 19th century, revolutionary groups in Russia had around 5,000 members.


With the spread of Marxist ideas, an organised socialist party was established (in the 1890s). Key members were Lenin and Martov. The party was called the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDRP) – the fact that they called themselves social-democrats must not lead to confusion with later movements of the same name, as these were Marxist revolutionaries. One of the earliest and most prominent Marxists was Plekhanov, who – together with others such as Axelrod and Zasulich – had formed the Group for the Emancipation of Labour, in 1883.  (This was actually a split from the Land and Freedom group over the use of terrorism).  At the end of the 19th century the social democrats numbered around 10,000.


The other radical political party that grew and became influential was: the Socialist Revolutionaries (or SRs), whose power base was largely among the peasants, but whose ideology was revolutionary socialism. There were also parties representing liberal and conservative politics – the liberals were called Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), the conservatives were Octobrists.


In 1903 the Second Congress of the RSDLP was held, in Brussels and then in London, and it ended in a split (Seton-Watson, op cit p 564). The immediate issue that led to the split was a question of the criteria for membership: should the party comprise activists (as Lenin urged) or have a broader membership. Actually Lenin was defeated on this. Later, on a vote concerning the party paper Iskra, Lenin and his followers were in the majority: when the part split, Lenin called his group the Bolsheviks (majority) and the rest (who were often in fact the majority!) became known as the Mensheviks.


Eventually the Mensheviks would disagree with the Bolsheviks over the stages that Russia should go through to arrive at socialism: they believed (and there is plenty of evidence in Marx’s writings to suggest this position) that Russia would have to go through capitalist development and become much more advanced before it was ready to move to socialism. In 1917 this question became of urgent importance!


The 1905 Revolution:


At the beginning of the 20th century a number of events took place which helped to move the country towards a revolutionary situation: the Japanese captured Port Arthur, which created a “mood of depression” (Seton-Watson op cit p 598); in 1905 there was a peaceful demonstration, which was supporting a group of workers (representing the Assembly of Russian Factory Workers, set up in 1903, with the permission of the authorities, by a priest named Gapon) – the workers wanted to petition the Tsar, but the demonstration was fired on by the army: more than 100 people were killed and several hundred were wounded. This came to be known as “bloody Sunday”, and the outrage it caused led to strikes and demonstrations.


There was a mutiny of sailors on the battleship Potemkin, in June 1905, and in October a rail strike that affected the whole of Russia.


In addition, the (1905) war with Japan was causing opposition and even mutinies, whilst as mentioned above, the regime was finding it difficult to placate its variety of national minorities: Poles, Finns, Georgians etc. The Tsar called on Sergei Witte (mentioned above for his work on the railways) to try to end the war, as well as to solve the unrest after Bloody Sunday. When the war with Japan ended with a Russian defeat, industry was in theory then freed from war production, but it turned to meeting the  increased demand for iron and steel for ships, which meant that less consumer goods, agricultural tools etc were produced. Moreover, the state had a cosy relationship with a small number of large firms, and the rest were left in difficulties and became resentful. Agriculture teetered between hard-won success and utter ruin.


During this period, factory workers began to set up soviets – workers’ committees or councils. The Petrograd Soviet, which was to play an important part in events leading up to the 1917 Revolution, was set up in 1905 by Trotsky and the Mensheviks. In these soviets, it is important to remember, (especially in the light of what happened under Lenin), workers of various political views were all represented. Their prime purpose, at first, was to co-ordinate strike activity.  Given that in Russia a “civil society” had hardly developed (so there was no sense of collective solidarity amongst citizens), workers also set up other institutions of their own, such as Sunday schools, sick-funds, and taverns. (Kropotkin’s 1902 book Mutual Aid portrays the extent to which this was happening at the time, and not just in Russia – see Kropotkin and Anarchism). In the countryside, agricultural co-operatives were being set up.


In other words, in various ways the autocracy was being weakened.  Various moves were made to bring about a more democratic constitution – such as in July 1905, when a joint congress of zemstvo and city representatives was held, and it adopted a draft constitution. Meanwhile the government proposed purely consultative bodies: this was “completely unacceptable to any political group except the conservatives” (Seton-Watson op cit p 599). As Seton-Watson puts it, the government was both weak and politically inept.


There was widespread discontent among the peasants, the workers, and in the armed forces. In June, Lenin wrote a pamphlet (Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Bourgeois-Democratic Revolution) setting out his view that the workers, allied to the peasants, and under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, should be the ones to change the state but he still saw the coming revolution as a bourgeois one. The Mensheviks wanted to collaborate with the bourgeoisie in this revolution, rather than the peasantry. Also in June the Kronstadt sailors mutinied: we shall hear more about them later.


In October there was a rail strike, followed by general strikes in several cities.  Trotsky returned from exile in Finland, and joined the recently established St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Witte, the Tsar’s advisor, was urging constitutional reform, and in October published a proposal to broaden the powers of the Council of Ministers. The St Petersburg Soviet was becoming powerful, however, and this would not satisfy their demands.


In February 1906 the Tsar set up a state duma. The duma had a mixture of appointed and elected members, and represented the entire spectrum of political views from extreme left to extreme right. But in practice, the duma had very limited powers, was only advisory, and the Tsar could disband it if he wished. Even the liberals (Constitutional Democrats) wanted more (a constitution, for a start!).  In fact the first duma didn’t last long before it was dissolved.


When Witte proposed reforms (free speech, freedom of assembly etc, and laws to be agreed by the duma), these were rejected as inadequate by the Petersburg Soviet. The Tsar saw these proposals as a major concession (as he saw it, giving the duma powers over the law would amount to a new constitution) – though the opposition saw it as nothing of the sort. There was therefore an ongoing conflict between the views of, on the one hand, people like Witte, who was a liberal, and the more conservative ministers, and on the other hand the Tsar himself who opposed liberalisation. Witte was in fact forced to resign in 1906.


In December 1905, Marxists in the Moscow soviet led an armed uprising, with support from some of the peasantry – but the state crushed it ruthlessly, as it did and any other revolts that took place at the time. Trotsky and others were arrested. Meanwhile, in 1906, trade unions were growing and got limited recognition from the state – which only enabled them to have further meetings and to increase their membership.


In short, there was political and industrial turmoil by now, and whatever the government did was rejected by the opposition. When a second duma was set up, Stolypin (the Prime Minister) changed the rules to make sure that landowners were in the majority, and this meant that in the third duma the dominant group was reform-minded conservatives, (Octobrists). In all there were four dumas before the 1917 revolution.


Cutting a long story short, in 1911 the PM, Stolypin was assassinated. The state could not agree on any measures to appease the peasants or the workers. The Tsar’s circle and the government gained a reputation for corruption – the fact that a “mad monk” Rasputin was highly influential over the Tsar’s family was seen as evidence that they were out of touch with reality. (Rasputin would end up murdered in 1916). A conservative State Council was set up – nationalistic and anti-semitic views, supported by the state, were growing.


From 1912 on, there were yet more strikes. In the factories workers were subject to “scientific management”. This was an American management approach, devised by Taylor, that involved close measurement of each task to find the “best” way of doing it, and then insisting that all workers had to carry out the task that way. Needless to say, experience in America showed that “Taylorism” removed any sense of autonomy and dignity, among workers, - even though they were shown convincing evidence that it made production more efficient, and therefore if they followed the rules and if they were paid “piece-rates” they could make more money. Lenin was to adopt the same managerial approach after the revolution…  Repression of any opposition manifested by the workers was, however, the rule of the day still, and striking workers at the Lena goldfields in Siberia were shot: 200 were killed and hundreds wounded. (See also CSR In Context Ch 4 The Workers: Taylorism).


By 1914 there were not only many more strikes, but also growing political and economic demands: for a democratic republic, an 8-hour day, for land to be taken from the gentry. These demands squared with the Bolsheviks’ programme – but they had grown up without the Bolsheviks necessarily having influenced them.


The “breaking point” was the First World War (1914 -18). Very briefly, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbs for the assassination of their archduke, and, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russia eventually supported Serbia (then as now!), along with the British and the French. 


The war was at first supported by all sections of the population, even by many revolutionaries (though ex-minister Witte opposed it). A notable exception was Lenin who advocated what he called “revolutionary defeatism” – i.e. if Russia were defeated, a revolution would most likely follow (whereas if Russia won, it would strengthen the state).  But the war began to go badly: many Russian soldiers were captured by the Germans at Tannenburg in 1914, a major setback, and a German naval blockade began to cause hardship. Soldiers, in fact, began “voting with their feet” as Trotsky put it – deserting the front and going home to agitate to overthrow the government.


Given this long build-up of circumstances, it is clearly wrong to suggest that a powerful revolutionary, Lenin, brought the revolution about by fooling or hijacking the mass of workers, soldiers and peasants, who naively followed him: rather, all the latter groups were suffering from the regime and its handling of the war and the economy. Clearly the economic situation of the country was very bad: war-production meant shortages of goods for consumption; trains were carrying arms and soldiers, not goods or food; there was hunger in the towns, but the price of grain was so low that the peasants were naturally unwilling to sell. A mass movement – though not a homogenous one – was building up.


By 1915, the middle classes were disaffected too, and there were more strikes this year and in 1916. In 1915 Germany attacked Russia. The war was costing the loss of members of the upper classes, who as officers were being killed in action. In other words, the government was simply losing support all round. However, as Service argues, it would not be fair to lay all the blame for the debacle at the foot of the government. War can cause problems in terms of public support, for any government (as the US is finding out at this moment!), and this is especially true of a government of a backward country such as Russia was at the time.


The Tsar still did not allow the duma to have any meaningful power, in fact he treated it with contempt. For example, when Marxist members of 4th duma criticised the war they were arrested.  On the other hand, at last the non-revolutionary parties were getting together: Kadets, Octobrists and Progressists.


The February Revolution:


Workers however remained the vanguard of the opposition.  In February 1917 there were strikes at the Putilov factory, and a mutiny in the Petrograd garrison.  On March 2nd 1917 (by the old pre-revolutionary calendar – after the next, October, Revolution this would become February) the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and a Provisional Government was set up, consisting mainly of Kadets (Constitutional Democrats). Kerensky eventually became Prime Minister.


It is worth noting at this point that this was the first of two revolutions that took place in 1917 – so much has been said and written about the second (October) Revolution that the first (February) is sometimes forgotten!   


The Provisional government promised elections to a Constituent Assembly (i.e. a body that would draw up a new constitution), and it decreed freedom of speech, assembly etc.  However, the government wanted to continue the war, and it refused to undertake agrarian reform. Kerensky also moved to outlaw the Bolsheviks, (who were opposed to the Provisional Government and its policies) and Lenin had to go into hiding in Finland [rfc] – other, including Trotsky, were arrested.


There followed a period of “dual power”:  on the one hand there was the Provisional Government, but on the other the soviets, especially the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies. The soviets, since they comprised the workers, could take practical steps to prevent the “official” government from operating effectively (they could and did stop the trains running for instance).  What this shows is that many workers seemed to want to give the Provisional Government a chance. But the government was under the thumb of the property owners, so there was a conflict. It had to be careful not to antagonise the soviets, but the aims of the Government and the workers differed: the workers were prepared at first to accept a purely defensive war, but what they also wanted was to redress the balance of power vis-á-vis the employers/managers (they wanted an end to humiliation!!).  In the army, too, the soldiers wanted a defensive war, a negotiated peace, and a Constituent Assembly. The peasants were less patient, and began taking land.


The Provisional Government did manage to get the Mensheviks and the SRs on its side (which meant that the Petrograd Soviet supported it). This meant that these two parties had to put aside some of their differences: the Mensheviks held to the traditional Marxist view that before a country could transform itself into a socialist economy it needed to go through a period of “bourgeois” or capitalist development; they also believed that the proletariat (workers) would be the agent of change, when the time came. By 1917, Lenin had decided (most commentators say that this was a distortion of Marxism) that the time was right for revolution. The SRs, on the other hand, were more populist, and supported small-scale and decentralised organisation; as populists they fought for (and had the support of) the peasantry as well as the workers. Later, the “Left SRs” did support Lenin however in the revolutionary takeover.


But, as Service puts it, this was “a sub-plot to the main drama”, which was one of industrial hardship, acceleration of inflation, land seizures, strikes and more militant demands from workers for control of their own factories. It has to be stressed that these demands for power to the factory committees, and for workers’ control, also the land seizures of the peasantry, arose “without much prodding from the Bolsheviks”, and even went further than the Bolsheviks wanted.


Lenin had been in exile for some time, because of his revolutionary activities. In April he published his April Theses urging revolution and using the slogan “all power to the soviets.” 


In the April Theses he argued, in effect, for a modification to the accepted Marxist theory of the transition from advanced capitalism to socialism: in Russia the conditions were exceptional, as there was an advanced and politically aware proletariat, and the government was weak. Trotsky added to this the argument that the small proletariat was nevertheless highly advanced, owing to the modern factory conditions that Russia had copied from the more developed countries. Lenin’s argument was that if the communists could take power, they could not only bring about socialism without continuing the intervening period of capitalist development, but they were likely to act as a trigger to the spread of the revolution across Europe. 


Gregory Maximoff (1979) argued that Lenin deliberately gave the appearance of supporting such radical demands, in order to ensure that he kept the support of the people at large: once in power he returned to the more “orthodox” Marxism of the Communist Manifesto, with its emphasis on centralised state power.


As mentioned already, Lenin after the October revolution also tried to implement “one-man management” in the factories, using the same people who had been managing the factories before the revolution, and urging on the use of Taylorism and other western capitalist management techniques. These issues, and the question of free expression, were at the root of opposition to Lenin, after the Revolution, from the Workers’ Opposition and the anarchists. (See also Brinton 2004)


Also in April the first government (which had been led by Prince Lvov) resigned and was replaced by one consisting largely of Mensheviks and SRs. Alexander Kerensky was the Minister of War, and later became Prime Minister. Under Kerensky the Provisional Government did move somewhat to the left, as it contained more of the moderate socialists and fewer Kadets. However, he wanted to expand the war, which went against popular opinion, and was opposed by the Bolsheviks.  In fact, in July there were demonstrations against the war – these were put down, and many were killed and injured in the “July Days”. The Bolsheviks were blamed for the violence, their paper was banned, and Trotsky was arrested.


Meanwhile, in June 1917 a national congress of soviets was held, and we can see the gradual spread of soviets throughout Russia, together with a steady increase in their powers. They had control over food production and distribution, and over cultural activities etc. The soviets were also thoroughly democratic: deputies to a soviet could be recalled by those sending them if they did not stick to the line they had been given - i.e. they were delegates, not merely representatives. Decisions were taken in open mass meetings, and so on.


The Bolsheviks showed determination and always took a hard line with those who disagreed with them, even (or especially, given the Freudian theory of the narcissism of small differences!) when their position was close to his. (See also Brown, A. on Lenin). Thanks to this stance, the Bolshevik Party’s supporters grew in number, and they increased their influence in the factory committees and the soviets – though still the other parties were well-represented (SRs, Mensheviks and KDs, and some anarchists). The Bolsheviks were the only party that was unconditionally hostile to the Provisional Government, and they wanted peace immediately. (The Provisional Government had shown not only that it wanted conquest, but that it was not capable of succeeding in this!). The Bolsheviks also promised elections to a Constituent Assembly (i.e. an assembly that would draw up a new constitution).


In September, the Commander in Chief of the army, General Kornilov (a right-wing opponent of the Provisional Government), attempted to march on the government. Kerensky was unable to do anything, but the Bolsheviks stepped in to prevent a coup. This damaged Kerensky’s reputation and enhanced that of the Bolsheviks of course, who were gaining more influence in the soviets..


The soviets had set up a Military Revolutionary Committee, and now were challenging Kerensky directly. The situation was ripe for revolution.


In October 1917 the Bolshevik Red Guards took over key places in Petrograd – railway stations, bridges, banks, post offices, telegraph offices etc - and eventually they entered the Winter Palace, seat of the Provisional Government, and arrested the government. There was sporadic fighting over a couple of days, but the revolution was almost completely bloodless. 


After the Revolution Kerensky in turn tried to lead a military attack on the new government, but the soldiers refused to fight. Kerensky fled to Paris, and then to the US, where he held a lecturing post until his death in 1970.



3.  Conclusion: Different Attitudes To, and Interpretations Of, the Russian Revolution:


Note: the Russian revolution was one of those events about which it is very difficult to be objective. Most accounts will inevitably bring out the political position of the writer. In these notes I have not made much secret of my own position, which is similar to that of Alexander Berkman (see below).


However, it might be worth giving a very brief overview of the main different perspectives:


1. A conservative or reactionary view would be that what was done in October (and presumably even February) 1917 was illegal. There are (believe it or not!) still those who believe in the “divine right” of rulers: there are also many who feel it was wrong to execute the royal family. At the extreme, this view meant that one could only argue for the return of the Romanov family as the rightful rulers of Russia!


2. The official Russian view, and that of pro-soviet Communist Parties is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks led the masses in a justified overthrow of a regime that was failing (i.e. both the Tsarist and the Provisional Governments). There are, of course, differences among communists as to the nature of Stalinism: some would want to draw a line between Lenin (who presumably could do no wrong) and Stalin. Others see Stalin as the true heir to Lenin, and would underplay the extent of the damage he (Stalin) did to the soviet regime and its citizens.


3. There are those, and they might be liberal or conservative, who would argue that the February Revolution was legitimate and the Kerensky regime should have been allowed to survive. To hold to this view one would have to say that the chaos in the period after February was not that serious.


4. An influential view on the left is characterised as Trotskyist. Using Marxist theory, Trotsky argued that the revolution was incomplete: the economic base was changed, but the political superstructure was captured by a Stalinist bureaucracy. A further (political and social) revolution was needed to hand power over to the workers. There are various explanations as to why the revolution was not complete: many argue that external factors prevented the Bolsheviks from completing their work (the country was after all invaded by anti-Bolshevik forces, and the Bolsheviks had to fight them off at the same time as dealing with the opposition within the country). Others argue that the revolution was in a sense premature, in that the peasantry were still numerous, and the proletariat small in number: again, following Marxism, this situation could not bring about socialism (however, Russia was clearly not capitalist either).


There has been a bitter – if somewhat arcane – dispute amongst some on the left as to the true character of the Soviet Union. Trotskyists would say it was a “bureaucratic or degenerated workers’ state” (to reflect their view that there had been a partial revolution, and that the Bolsheviks represented the workers). Others (such as the SWP) argue that the state in the Soviet Union has served to extract surplus value from the workers, in order to accumulate capital (to compete with the USA): it was therefore “state capitalist”. They blame the failure of the revolution on the hostile conditions after the revolution, and the failure of the revolution to spread to other countries.


5. Finally, representing a smaller tendency still than any of the above, there is the libertarian socialist or anarchist position: this argues, as I pretty much argued above, that the build up to the revolution, and the revolution itself, was the work of the masses; the Bolsheviks took advantage of the unrest to put themselves in a “vanguard” position, and soon after betrayed the interests of the workers. Since it is closest to my own view, I give here a brief summary of the argument presented by Alexander Berkman in 1922, in a pamphlet called The Russian Tragedy (see the booklist below).


Berkman was deported from the United States in 1920 because of his opposition to the First World War. As a supporter of the 1917 revolution, he went to Russia, but he left soon after, disillusioned with what had happened there. He argues that:


          - we can see from their actions that the Bolsheviks never trusted the ordinary people, and especially the peasants (they not given a fair representation at the various all-Russian congresses, and they were dismissed as petty bosses and bourgeois); [I would add that when, in 1905, Lenin allied his party with the peasantry it was, as Seton-Watson says, to lead them into a bourgeois revolution; Marxism has never favoured the peasantry, and this is one of its disagreements with anarchism]


          - when they seized power the Bolsheviks promised elections to a Constituent Assembly; when they found they did not have a majority after the elections they disbanded the Assembly by force [the Bolshevik argument was that the parties that had the majority would have reversed the gains of the revolution]


          - they gave control over Finland, White Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraina, Bessarabia, to the Germans (Trotsky and Radek opposed this, as did the left SRs and the anarchists) and when the left SRs urged the formation of military detachments to support these peoples against the Germans, Trotsky sent Russian troops to stop them


          - other left groups were attacked, their presses seized, they were declared illegal etc [again, defenders of Lenin – such as the SWP – argue that these groups, e.g. the anarchists, were a threat to the revolution!]


          - workers’ co-operatives were abolished, and “one man management” established in factories [see the comments above about Taylorism, and see also Brinton 2004, pp 293 – 378: The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control]


          - the Bolsheviks kept in place much of the apparatus of the Tsarist state, such as the secret police, known as the Cheka (later the NKVD); the governmental bureaucratic machine was allowed to grow as well. [Although Lenin, when he was ill and had not long to live, spoke out against the bureaucracy, his only solution was to set up a committee to control/prevent the growth of the bureaucracy!]


          - soon after the revolution, grain was subject to military requisitioning, and peasants who obstructed the requisitioning were whipped and their villages razed with artillery


          - the sailors of the Kronstadt fortress rose up in 1921, demanding that the original promises of the revolution be kept to: the uprising was put down by force, [and attempts were made to blacken the reputation of the sailors, e.g. allegations were soon to surface of a Jewish conspiracy!!]

(see also: Brinton op cit p 75)


          - the Ukrainians under the leadership of the anarchist Makhno, who supported the Bolsheviks, were attacked


          - in 1921 Lenin establishes a New Economic Policy (NEP), based on private ownership, free trade, and “the best communist is he who drives the best bargain.” [see also Maximoff 1979]




There are, of course, many books on the subject. I have used – or would recommend – the following (for a start!):


Berkman, A. (1986): The Russian Tragedy, Phoenix Press (written 1922)

Brinton, M. (1970): The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, Solidarity

          also in: (2004): ed. David Goodway: For Workers’ Power, AK Press

Brown, A.: A Fresh Look at Lenin (Solidarity pamphlet): 

Carr E. H. (1966): The Bolshevik Revolution, Penguin (first published 1950)

Lawrence, J. (1962): A History of Russia, Mentor

Maximoff, G. P. (1979): The Guillotine at work, Cienfuegos Press (first published 1940)

Pares Sir B. (1962): A History of Russia, Cape (first published 1926)

Schapiro, L. (1977): The Government and Politics of the Soviet Union, Hutchinson (6th ed.)

Service, R. (1991): The Russian Revolution 1900 - 1927, Macmillan (2nd ed.)

Seton-Watson, H. (1967): The Russian Empire 1801 – 1917, Oxford: Clarendon Press (note: only goes as far as Feb 1917)

Wood, A. (1993): The Origins of the Russian Revolution 1861 – 1917, Routledge (2nd ed.)


On Stalin:

Martin Amis

Simon Sebag Montefiore: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Weidenfeld)


Postscript: Russia today.


The country has changed enormously since Gorbachev tried to bring in ‘perestroika’ (re-structuring) and ‘glaznost’ (openness). I have not tried to keep up with all this, but there was a very good piece by Evgeny Lebedev in G2, 09.10.12 describing his life, and the impact of these upheavals:


He refers to another book – ‘one of the best books on Russia to come out in recent years’: Molotov’s Magic lantern by Rachel Polonsky.