The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the first socialist revolution in world history, was marked on October 25 — the date the Bolsheviks led the revolutionary seizure of power by the soviets (elected councils of workers, peasants and soldiers).
Socialist activist and historian Paul Le Blanc has written a detailed overview of the revolution, from its background to its aftermath. Green Left Weekly is running it over four parts. Below is the third in the series. It takes up the story a few months after the February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar. At this time, Russia was marked by a “dual power” situation between the soviets (councils) of workers, soldiers and peasants, and the pro-capitalist Provisional Government, which depended on soviet support for its survival.
The full piece can read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
The first Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd in early June 1917. Most delegates opposed Russia’s continued participation in the war. The congress voted to organise an anti-war demonstration on June 18.
In Petrograd on that day, more than 300,000 people marched and rallied, calling for an end to the war and for the ejection of capitalist politicians from the Provisional Government. On July 4, an even more militant protest drew 500,000 soldiers, sailors and workers. Many of them marched in armed units, calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government.
The Bolshevik leaders believed that a confrontation with the government was premature. However, Bolsheviks were swept along in the demonstration and were closely identified with it.
Neither the Congress of Soviets nor a majority of workers supported the extreme demand that the Provisional Government be overthrown. This lack of support made it easier to isolate and discredit the Bolsheviks.
In the aftermath of the July 4 demonstration, the government and its supporters unleashed a fierce campaign of repression and anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Pro-government newspapers denounced Bolshevik leader VI Lenin as a German agent. Troops loyal to the government raided and wrecked Bolshevik offices. Many prominent Bolsheviks, including Leon Trotsky, were arrested. Warrants were issued for Lenin and other leaders, who went into hiding. In the midst of this July Crisis, Provisional Government head Alexander Kerensky assumed dictatorial powers.
Kerensky appointed General Lavr Kornilov head of the armed forces. Kornilov was an authoritarian favoured by the upper classes and counter-revolutionaries. A staunch Russian patriot, Kornilov appeared to have the ability to re-establish order.
In fact, Kornilov was conspiring with aristocrats and military leaders to establish order by suppressing the soviets and replacing the Provisional Government with a military dictatorship. Efforts to patch together a compromise between Kerensky and Kornilov collapsed.
A frightened Kerensky called on supporters of the soviets to mobilise against the threatened coup as Kornilov’s troops approached Petrograd in late August. The soviets were given arms and arrested Bolsheviks freed to help defend the February Revolution.
The Bolsheviks played a prominent and effective role in this effort and the attempted coup was thwarted. Revolutionary agitators who won over Kornilov’s troops were largely responsible for preventing the coup.
With armed workers and revolutionary troops controlling the streets of the capital, political realities tilted in a more revolutionary direction. The Russian workers and peasants saw clearly that the landowners and capitalists, and their political representatives, had actively supported Kornilov.
Kerensky was badly compromised because of his earlier overtures to Kornilov. The moderate Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) and Menshevik leaders were discredited for supporting Kerensky.
The Bolsheviks — who had built an effective political organisation and put forward the popular demands of “Peace, Bread, Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” — had greater mass support than ever before.
In elections held in September 1917, the Bolsheviks won majorities in the soviets in Petrograd, Moscow and many smaller cities. For the first time, there was support in the soviets for replacing the Provisional Government with rule by the soviets. A second Congress of Soviets was due to convene in late October and it was clear the Bolsheviks would win control. In October, the Bolsheviks gained an important ally when a majority of the SRs split off to form the Left SRs.
On October 10, the Bolshevik Central Committee adopted an urgent proposal by Lenin that the party begin organising for the seizure of power. The Petrograd soviet, now led by Trotsky, established a Military Revolutionary Committee.
The committee’s official purpose was to defend the city from counterrevolution. In fact, its task was planning the insurrection that overthrew the Provisional Government.
On the night of October 24 and 25, a coordinated effort of workers’ Red Guard units, revolutionary soldiers and sailors, and other activists carried out an almost bloodless coup. This insurrection culminated in the storming of the Winter Palace — where the cabinet of the Provisional Government was meeting and the arrest of its cabinet.
Only a small percentage of workers were involved in the Provisional Government’s overthrow. However, it was clear the great majority of workers supported the seizure of power.
On October 25, while the insurrection was in progress, the second Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd. Of the 850 delegates, the Bolsheviks had 390 and their Left SR allies had 100. The 80 Menshevik delegates and 60 Right SR delegates walked out when the Congress accepted the power granted it by the Bolshevik-led insurrection.
Lenin addressed the gathering with the statement: “We shall now proceed to the construction of the socialist order.” He predicted that working-class revolutions would spread to other countries, and concluded: “Long live the world socialist revolution!”
Initially, soviet rule was implemented through a multiparty system. Bolsheviks, as well as delegates from various Menshevik and SR factions and anarchists and activists not affiliated with any party, had voice and vote in all sessions. Freedom of press and assembly flourished in the general political life of the country.
An executive body of government was established, the Council of People’s Commissars, headed by Lenin. It was responsible to the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets, which was elected by the Congress of Soviets. The delegates to the Congress, in turn, were elected from various regional and local bodies and could be replaced easily.
The new government proclaimed Russia a soviet republic. The regime made a number of far-reaching decisions consistent with revolutionary ideals.
It declared Russia would withdraw from World War I and validated the peasants’ seizure and redistribution of land. It also affirmed the right to self-determination of all oppressed nationalities.
The new government established policies for equal rights for women, government control of all banks, and implementing workers’ control of industry. It moved to provide health care, education, and housing to all as a right.
It decreed the separation of church and state, ending privileges of the Russian Orthodox Church. Believers of all denominations were granted freedom of worship.
Members of the government were also granted incomes no higher than those of common skilled labourers.
The decisions of the Congress of Soviets on peace and land evoked widespread support for the new government. These decisions were decisive in assuring victory for the Bolsheviks in other cities and in the provinces.
In proclaiming the right of self-determination, the Council of People’s Commissars said it hoped the “toiling masses” of the various nationalities would decide to remain part of Russia.
Among the Bolsheviks, a controversy flared up over whether Mensheviks and Right SRs should be invited to join the governing council. A majority of Bolsheviks agreed with Lenin and Trotsky that it made little sense to seek a coalition with those who opposed the Soviet government. On the other hand, there was agreement on including Left SRs.
The pro-capitalist Cadet party was outlawed and some restrictions on freedom of the press were imposed. Bolshevik leaders argued that these measures were justified by the proliferation of counterrevolutionary activities among those opposed to the new regime.
To deal with such activities, the government set up a special police unit, the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage. This unit was known as the Cheka, from the initials of the Russian words for “extraordinary commission”.
Initially, however, people generally viewed the new Soviet government as being radically democratic.
Another controversy arose over the Constituent Assembly, for which the Provisional Government had promised to hold elections. This assembly was supposed to oversee the development of a constitution that would establish a new democratic governmental structure for Russia.
For months, revolutionary parties and the soviets had been pressuring the Provisional Government to hold the elections. The Provisional Government had finally made arrangements to hold the elections on November 12, 13 and 14. In the meantime, the October Revolution had occurred. There was some confusion over whether and how to hold the elections.
The new Soviet government allowed the elections to be held, despite doubts about how accurately the elections would reflect popular support for the October Revolution.
The lists of candidates had been made up before the October split of the SRs into Left SRs (who supported the soviet government) and Right SRs (who opposed it). The SRs were generally supported by peasants and more Right SR than Left SR candidates appeared on ballots in rural areas.
In the elections, the Bolsheviks won overwhelmingly in urban areas and working-class districts. But the SRs won most peasant votes. This meant when the Constituent Assembly convened on January 5, 1918, it had a majority of delegates who opposed soviet power.
On the next day, the Soviet government — with the active support not just of Bolsheviks but Left SRs, anarchists, and some former Mensheviks — declared the Constituent Assembly dissolved. The regime proclaimed that the soviets alone represented the democratic will of the Russian masses.