At some point growing up, I don’t know when, I heard about the Russian Revolution of 1917. The idea of equality and liberation it represented was attractive to me. Then things changed. School textbooks, movies, Sunday Times book reviews and a thousand other sources all painted a picture of the revolution as a crime or a disaster. All this left me convinced that it was a terrible thing – motivated by good intentions, but disastrous in its outcomes. However, this conviction was not firm, because it wasn’t based on much, and it didn’t last.
Socialism still seemed to me to hold out a promise of human liberation – it was not just a nice idea, but an urgent necessity in a world tortured by hunger, climate change, poverty, war and exploitation. I set about looking more deeply into history to find out what went wrong with the socialist experiments. Years later, as a result of this and of my own activity in the workers’ movement, I have come firmly to the conclusion that the Russian Revolution was not a crime or a calamity, but perhaps the single greatest blow against oppression in human history so far.
On the centenary of the Revolution, this historical truth is worth waging a struggle for. This article accompanies Part 2 of “Revolution 1917: Ten Right-Wing Scare Stories that shook the world,” a humble contribution to this struggle. The videos speak for themselves, but for those who want to learn more, go in-and-around the facts and issues more, or check the sources, this article is for you.
Scare Story #4: “The Bolsheviks were un-democratic and sinister!”
In the late 19th century the working class in Russia grew and developed, and with it a socialist movement expressing its interests and its world-view. At the same time layers of the middle class turned against the autocratic rule of the Tsar. Some of them, such as Lenin and Trotsky, became convinced that the working class was the force that would overthrow the Tsar, and that capitalism worldwide was doomed to collapse and be replaced by socialism.
The Russian Social-Democratic and Labour Party was born from this coming-together of forces. This party worked illegally, underground, its members on the run or imprisoned. Early in its history the RSDLP split into the Mensheviks (minority) and Bolsheviks (majority). The difference between these forces was that the Bolsheviks wanted a party of committed, dedicated revolutionary activists while the Mensheviks wanted a broad, undifferentiated party on a less firm programme.
This split is sometimes presented as evidence that Lenin or the Bolsheviks were undemocratic. In more absurd accounts, all the calamitous history of Stalinism is traced back to this moment. But the issue at hand was not democracy. Both parties had elected leaders, conferences etc, as far as was possible operating illegally. Both parties fought for democracy, and never, as outlined in Part 1, did Lenin or other leading Bolsheviks call for a “one-party state” or anything of the kind.
The Bolsheviks had an elected leadership, among whom Lenin was the most respected. Lenin was not the “dictator” of the party, as the many instances where he did not get his way demonstrate. There were many other important, extremely talented and prominent leaders, from the central right down to the local. From 1911 to 1914 the Bolsheviks developed into the biggest working-class party in the country. In this period their members “on the ground” in local branches and chapters were themselves respected leaders in their workplaces and communities.
Lenin’s sharp polemics and articles are often cited as evidence that he was undemocratic. What this evidence actually shows is that the Bolshevik party had a rich internal life, full of debate and discussion. Lenin always went to great lengths to convince people of his point of view, an approach that was absolutely democratic.
In 1917 there were repeated sharp conflicts in the ranks and in the leadership of the Bolshevik party, struggles that provide further evidence of a democratic organisation. Repeatedly Lenin was in a minority in leadership bodies, and had to wage a campaign for his ideas, patiently winning party members over. Nowhere was this clearer than in September-October 1917, when Lenin and others were arguing for an uprising while others such as Kamanev and Zinoviev, counselled waiting.
Lenin won the leadership bodies firmly to his position only thanks to the rank-and-file members of the party, who put pressure on the leadership bodies and backed up those who favoured insurrection against those who favoured waiting. In an undemocratic party, one ruled by bureaucratic dictates from a central committee, this would have been impossible. An undemocratic party would simply not have been capable of leading the uprising of October/ November 1917. Connected with this, the story of Kamanev and Zinoviev, who publicly broke with Lenin in flagrant violation of party rules and continued as leading members, is further evidence of a democratic internal culture.
The Bolsheviks were centralised, and operated on the basis of full and free discussion followed by unity in action. There is nothing in this that contradicts democratic principles.
Myth #6: “The Revolution prevented Russia from becoming a democracy!”
I once read an essay that imagined an alternative history in which Lenin is shot on his arrival at the Finland station, and as a result no October Revolution happens, and Russia, under the brilliant leadership of Kerensky, develops into one of the world’s most prosperous liberal democracy. I can’t remember the title of the book the essay was in, or the author. I suspect it was Robert Service.
This fantasy has no basis in the facts. The Provisional Government (unelected and self-appointed) refused to deliver on the demands of the people of Russia for month after month. The war, the domination of the landlords and the profiteering and exploitation went on. The country was driven to the brink of famine and economic collapse by Kerensky and co and their refusal to break with imperialist war, landlordism and capitalism.
As early as July a near-revolution took place in the capital. The army and navy were crumbling. By September, the country had been rocked by rural uprisings of peasants against nobles: the seizing of land, equipment and riches, the burning of estates. The scale was undeniable: “Out of the 624 counties constituting old Russia, 482, or 77 per cent, were involved in the movement. And omitting the borderlands, distinguished by special agrarian conditions – the northern district, the Transcaucasus, the region of the steppes, and Siberia – out of 481 counties, 439, or 91 per cent, were drawn into the peasant revolt.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, “The Peasantry Before October”).
Meanwhile the ruling class was enraged and determined to crush this revolution. Kornilov’s coup represented an attempt to stamp down the iron heel of dictatorship. The histories of other revolutionary movements provide abundant parallels to illustrate what a victorious Russian counter-revolution would have looked like. One will suffice for now: the Italian Revolution suffered from fatal indecision and hesitation in its leadership, allowing Mussolini the opportunity to become dictator. The establishment welcomed this apparent “outsider” with open arms because he offered the muscle required to batter the working class into submission. In Russia, a successful counter-revolution would have had to take the land back off the peasants, put down the workers in the cities and break their organisation, and rebuild a functioning army. Obviously all this would have involved totalitarian powers and massive bloodshed.
There is no greater illusion than to imagine that Kerensky’s Provisional Government could have brought in a liberal democracy in Russia. There was on the one hand an enraged ruling class, and on the other the vast majority of workers, peasants and soldiers, who were rising up against the old order. Neither side was willing to compromise because both sides were fighting for astronomical stakes. It was not a choice between 1937 Stalinism and 1970s Sweden, but between Soviet democracy and a counter-revolutionary military dictatorship. Those were the real choices before the people of Russia at that moment.
Myth #7: “The October Revolution was a coup!”
The February Revolution and the October Revolution present a striking contrast to one another.
The February Revolution was extremely bloody. It was a huge struggle lasting five days during which hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets, lines of soldiers gunned down workers, and pillars of smoke from burning police stations rose high. There was no clear political party, organisation or personality at the head of the protests.
This uprising overthrew the Tsar, but was not sufficiently organised to create an alternative regime, a bit like the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Instead, the self-appointed “Provisional Government” took power. Meanwhile, the Soviet, a more democratic body directly elected by workers, sailors and soldiers, formed as a rival to it.
The October Revolution passed with very few fatalities. Though Sergei Eisenstein’s film would have us believe otherwise, the military side of the struggle was not terribly dramatic. The Soviet could call on massive numbers of armed men: the thousands-strong Red Guard of factory workers; the sailors of Kronstadt, Helsingfors, etc; many military units of the garrison. The government on the other hand had a short list of armed defenders: the military college students and a women’s unit. The forces of the Soviet simply took over the capital. The struggle for the Winter Palace was protracted but not bloody. There were significant battles and skirmishes in the days following the insurrection but these were not on the scale of February.
The October Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and substituted for it the Soviet and the Council of People’s Commissars. In February the events were much more dramatic, bloody and visually momentous. But in October the change, the result of the struggle, was far more significant and far-reaching.
In February the workers went into the streets themselves, in incredible numbers. In October, the Soviet was well-organised and could call on loyal and reliable armed units. The Soviet, expressing the democratic will of the workers, soldiers and sailors, sent forth armed representatives, who did the work on behalf of and at the behest of the masses, and feeling behind their backs the strong support of the masses.
A coup is a seizure of power by an underhanded conspiracy, boasting brilliant tactics and powerful individuals and institutions, but little popular support. Because it did not take the form of an earth-shattering inchoate Tahrir Square-type movement, the October Revolution has often been described as a coup.
In October, those directly involved in Petrograd alone, with weapons in their hands, numbered ten to twenty thousand. They operated on the orders of a democratically-elected body, the Petrograd Soviet, and received the approval of the All-Russia Congress of Soviets.
For the sake of completeness, and as an aside to the above argument, we need to point out that there was significant fighting around Petrograd in the weeks after the October Revolution. Meanwhile the insurrection in Moscow, less well-organised than the one in Petrograd, took the form of a week of bloody street-fighting.
Why were there fewer in the streets in October compared to February, or even July? Because in the intervening months the workers had organised themselves to a higher level, and instead of going out in person, they sent out a minority of their number, armed and organised in fighting detachments. Also in the intervening months the government had lost support. It was extremely weak in the capital. Only limited forces were necessary for its overthrow. October was less dramatic than February because it was a more unanimous and decisive uprising.
To accept this argument is to fly in the face of an item of conventional wisdom widespread among liberals and to some extent among anarchists, which holds that the only defensible revolutions are those which are too inchoate and disorganised and leaderless to substitute a new regime for the old one. In February there was no soviet ready to assume power and no revolutionary party ready to lead the struggle; in October both were present, and as a result the uprising was highly-organised and almost bloodless. It is for this reason that opponents of the Russian Revolution claim that it was a coup.
A note on references: The best source on democracy and the Bolshevik party is LeBlanc, Paul, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Haymarket books, 1990. On the myth that the October Revolution was a coup, see Trotsky, Leon, History of the Russian Revolution, Gollancz, 1933 (1930), especially the relevant chapters in Volume 3 (“The Art of Insurrection”, “The Conquest of the Capital”.) The figure of 20,000 comes from this book. Most of the above, however, is not so much a presentation of data as the elaboration of an argument based on universally-accepted facts.