The Russian Revolution: Events that shook the world

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Events that shook the world

By James Vassilopoulos

"Besides the organised and peaceful demonstrations there were many of a different kind — tumultuous, ardent, violent, anarchical, drawing in hundreds of thousands, even millions of participants — the succession of these demonstrations marking the advance of the revolution.

"Every street corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere ... What a marvelous sight to see the Putilov factory pour out its 40,000 to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they could talk."

This is how US socialist John Reed, the author of the famous eyewitness account, Ten Days that Shook the World, described the excitement of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

On October 25 (November 7 on our calendar), 1917, the Russian people overthrew the capitalist government of Alexander Kerensky and established the first workers' state in history. November 7 this year marks the 81st anniversary of the Russian Revolution. While the progressive policies introduced by the Bolsheviks, the left-wing party which led the revolution, were later partially reversed by Stalin and today have been almost completely lost in the current process of capitalist restoration, the 1917 Russian Revolution holds many inspiring lessons for those struggling for a better world.

War and crisis

Russia in 1917 was in the grip of a severe crisis caused by being embroiled in World War I. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died (as did 10 million working people from all countries) in that slaughter. Millions were starving. Peasants, 70% of the population, could barely survive with the little land they owned or rented.

Workers worked an average day of 10 hours, not including overtime. In Petrograd, the capital of Russia, average wages were just a third of what was needed to feed, clothe and house a family.

PictureLiving conditions were atrocious. Only 9% of houses were connected to drains, just 12.5% had access to a water supply system. In 1912, the average number of people per apartment in Moscow was 8.7.

This is how one Russian historian described the situation of workers: "In the Moscow textile factories, 134 women in 1000 had tuberculosis. In addition there was an epidemic, which the doctors qualified as 'traumatic' and entirely 'proletarian': work injuries ... In one textile factory, in a three year period, only one in three workers had not been injured."

At the beginning of 1917, the dictator Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia on behalf of the big landowners. There was no democracy, not even a parliament. Eighty per cent of the budget went to the army and other bodies of the repressive state. Many of the nations which Russia ruled, like Lithuania and Poland, were not even allowed to speak their own language.

In February, striking women textile workers lit the spark of this volatile social time bomb with their International Women's Day protest. On February 24, 50% of all workers in Petrograd, about 200,000, were on strike. They demanded bread, immediate peace and "Down with the Tsar".

The next day the strike wave became a general strike. The military garrison sided with the protesters and the mutiny spread. On February 27, the dictatorship was overthrown.

Two powers

There were now two forms of government which could fill the political vacuum: the unelected provisional government of Prince Lvov, backed by the emerging bourgeoisie, and the soviets — local councils in factories, neighbourhoods and across cities, in which working people ran things themselves. Soldiers at the front also began to elect their officers and set up soviets.

These bodies were run according to the principles of direct democracy and participation. Deputies could be recalled by their electors, unlike capitalist parliamentarians.

The soviets at this stage were dominated by the reformist Mensheviks, a party similar to the ALP, and the Socialist Revolutionaries, a peasant party. Soon these parties decided to take part in the provisional government, which was continuing Russia's participation in the war.

On April 7, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, Vladimir Lenin, published the April Theses, in which he demanded "All Power to the Soviets" and attacked the provisional government.

In June, minister of war Alexander Kerensky launched a new offensive. Thousands more soldiers became cannon fodder in this war to divide markets between different imperialist powers. The offensive flopped.

In July the mood in the capital grew angry, 1 million protesters marching through the streets of Petrograd, almost causing the provisional government to collapse.

To keep power the government launched a wave of repression against the Bolshevik party and its working class supporters. Newspapers were banned, demonstrations were made illegal, and Bolsheviks who did not go into hiding were arrested.

Coup attempt

General Kornilov, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, launched a coup against the provisional government and the soviets, which were still in effect sharing power. His armies marched towards Petrograd.

Workers, soldiers and peasants rose up, arms in hand, against the attempted coup. The soviets were decisive in the defence of Petrograd. Technicians in the postal and telegraph services disrupted enemy communications. Printers took charge and printed and distributed leaflets and newspapers. Workers in arms factories worked 16 hours a day to arm the people of Petrograd.

Kornilov's army did not even make it to Petrograd, as railway workers sabotaged train lines and then demoralised the enemy through persuasive agitation.

With the defeat of the counter-revolution, and the loss of support by Kerensky's provisional government due to the failure of the June military offensive and the failure to end the war, working people's anger grew and politics shifted leftward.

Before September the Bolsheviks already had the majority in the council of factory committees. These factory committees were new levels of organisation, separate from the unions, which workers in each factory elected. These committees called for workers' control and increasingly took control of production in factories.

By September, rail and postal workers struck. Ukraine and Finland sought autonomy and independence. Garrisons in Petrograd supported the soviets. The Bolsheviks obtained a clear majority for the first time in elections to the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik leader, was elected chairperson of the Petrograd soviet.

The majority desire was for the soviets to run society. On October 25, an insurrection was organised — the culmination of the revolution. Strategic sites like the telephone exchange and the banks were occupied, and pro-government military units were disarmed. The insurrection, owing to its popularity, was almost bloodless.

That night, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers endorsed the insurrection. Resolutions were passed giving the land to the poor peasants, calling for an end to the war and recognising the right of nations within the Russian empire to self-determination.

Achievements

The government, elected by the soviets, quickly implemented a host of progressive measures. Negotiations were opened to take Russia out of the war, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

The private ownership of big estates was abolished, and land was given to poor peasants. Self-determination was guaranteed for oppressed nations, including the right to secede. An eight-hour working day was introduced. Workers were given control over industrial production.

Laws were enacted which gave women legal equality with men for the first time. Women had the right to choose free, legal abortion. Marriage became a simple registration process and divorce was granted upon request.

The policy of the Bolsheviks, now called the Communist Party, in 1919 was: "Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it with communal houses, public eating places, central laundries".

The budget for public education, which was 195 million roubles in 1916, was increased to 2.9 billion in 1918 and to 10 billion by 1919, despite the country being invaded by imperialist forces attempting to crush the revolution. The number of primary schools was increased from 38,387 in 1917 to 62,238 in 1919.

Majority support

One lie often repeated by conservative historians is that the Bolshevik-led revolution did not have majority support. It is claimed that once the soviets took state power, the Bolsheviks wiped out all other opposition and abolished the parliament, the Constituent Assembly.

The truth is very different. The demand, "All power to the soviets", won 70% support at the meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets, by far the most democratic body in Russia. The Second All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies, which met between December 9 and 23, supported soviet power by a slight majority.

Elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in November, as the Bolsheviks had pledged (the provisional government had repeatedly delayed them). But by that time, the assembly itself had been made largely irrelevant by events. Only 50% of those eligible to vote did so.

In rural areas, the elections were run by conservative parties like the Kerenskyite Constitutional Democrats, which often refused to distribute the lists of Bolshevik candidates.

The list of candidates for the Socialist Revolutionaries were drawn up before the party split, with a new party called the Left Socialist Revolutionaries forming. The Left SRs represented the majority of the SR membership, yet many peasants could not vote for these more radical members.

By the time the Third Congress of Peasant Deputies met in January 1918, the Bolsheviks and Left SRs accounted for 85% of the delegates. The Constitutional Assembly also met in January 1918, but, because it did not support the Soviet government, it was dissolved.

This did not mean that democratic institutions were abolished, but that an unrepresentative institution was replaced by superior organs of democracy, the popularly elected soviets.

Without the Bolshevik Party, the revolution would not have happened. Lenin's chief contribution was the building of a disciplined, activist party. As Lenin emphasised: "In its struggle for power, the proletariat has no other weapon than organisation".

Trotsky, in a speech in 1932, said: "Without a party which is able to orientate itself in its environment, evaluate the progress and rhythm of events, and win the confidence of the masses, the victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible".

The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, were able to grasp the opportunities at decisive moments: in April, to call for the soviets to take power; in August, to mobilise the masses to stop the Kornilov coup; and in October, to launch the insurrection, once it was clear that they had majority support.