The Fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution is now with us, and again dramatic and romantic descriptions of the Bolshevik seizure of power will circulate. Lurid official paintings of the event, with Stalin well to the fore and Trotsky nowhere to be seen, will appear in the glossy magazines. In fact the events that took place in Petrograd on November 7 1917 (October 26 by the old Russian Calendar) were largely a noisy farce. What little bloodshed occurred was unnecessary, the result of muddle and hysteria.
The grand climax, the storming of the Winter Palace and the capture of the Provisional Government, had all the makings of a legend—the ultimatum, brought by two armed cyclists across the river from the fortress of St Peter and St. Paul, the opening of the bombardment from the fortress and from the cruiser Aurora, while the cruiser’s searchlights swept the city. Finally the Red Guards closing in to storm the place. All the time, of course, Lenin from the Smolny Institute was directing operations with an iron hand.
In reality the cruiser fired only blanks, while most of the shells from the fortress went anywhere but the Winter Palace. The defending troops had been melting away all day, and the remnants gave up without a fight. In the final scene the cabinet made a pathetic pretence of being in session when the Red Guards broke in and captured them. The real work of the revolution had lain in the months that had preceded it, and in the ruthless period of consolidation and repression that was to follow. On November 7 the only well organised body in Russia, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, took the power from the nervous hands of a government whose writ hardly ran beyond the committee rooms of Petrograd.
The overthrow of the Tzar, in the February insurrection, had revealed a country in a state of complete collapse, politically and economically. When the Tzar departed the whole machinery of government went with him. The completely unbending nature of the autocracy had made it impossible for any of the opposition parties to obtain real political experience; consequently nobody had any clear idea of what to do. All authority had centred on the Tzar, so with the monarchy gone loyalties shifted about and swung from one rallying point to another.
The army, the mainstay of the Tzarist State, had been broken by the unparalleled slaughter of the past three years. The economy was in ruins. Once the lid was off, the repressed grievances of the workers and peasants burst out in numerous acts of violence. It was predictable that the first organised body strong enough to rally substantial support would take control. That body was the Bolsheviks.
The revolution had been quite spontaneous and unplanned, and while the victorious soldiers and workers thronged the streets there emerged what has become known as the dual power. Two centres of power arose in opposite wings of the Tauride Palace, both of them relics of the 1905 revolution.
One was the State Duma or Parliament, which was the only institution of the old autocratic government to survive. It had been very limited in its powers, it was based on an extremely restricted electorate, and had been set up as a sop to revolutionary feelings in 1905. Like the Parliaments in Tudor England it was called only when there was trouble such as the outbreak of war, and very little notice had been taken of it. The Duma was to become the nucleus of the new Provisional Government. Its members were drawn from the landowning and embroyo capitalist classes, and its principal party was the Constitutional Democrats or Kadets. The Kadets had also come into being in 1905, and they favoured a Constitutional Monarchy. They were “progressive liberals”, but in any other place they would have been considered extreme reactionaries.
The other body was the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies that had been set up in imitation of 1905. Soviet is merely the Russian word for council. Its members were Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks with a few Bolsheviks and other minor parties. The Soviet held the real power, through the fact that the revolutionaries would take orders only from them. No train would run, no telegram would be sent, and nothing would be printed without the Soviet permission. The War Minister, A. I. Guchkov
, in a letter to a general, wrote
The Provisional Government possesses no real power and its orders are executed only insofar as this is permitted by the Soviet of the Workers and Soldiers Deputies, which holds in its hands the most important elements of actual power, such as troops, railroads, postal and telegraph service. It is possible to say directly that the Provisional Government exists only while this is permitted by the Soviet. (A Short History of the Russian Revolution, Joel Carmichael.)
But the great irony was that, although the Soviet held the real power, they refused to exercise it. They held the view that a bourgeois government must first take power and engineer a capitalist revolution before a Socialist Revolution could follow. This, combined with their inexperience and the suddenness with which they had been pitchforked into power, led them to bolster up the Provisional Government, rather than make use of the power they held. Such an arrangement would have been difficult in any circumstances; in the Russia of 1917 it was doomed to failure from the start, and served to paralyse things still further.
Meanwhile the peasants throughout Russia were taking the law into their own hands, seizing land and burning down manor houses. This led to a further deterioration in the supply of food. And all the time the war was dragging on. It was into this mess that Lenin, a master of political organisation and intrigue, arrived in April. He began, with the able assistance of Trotsky—his equal in these matters— to organise the Bolsheviks, a despised minority party, into the only effective body in Russia.
The Provisional Government was determined to carry on with the war and in mid-summer Kerensky launched the long awaited offensive. It was a ghastly failure; the Germans smashed through the Russian lines and the Russian army was at an end as a fighting force. Men began to desert in droves, flocking back from the front and giving rise to the much-quoted expression of “voting with their feet”. The workers and soldiers of St. Petersburg outdid the Bolsheviks in revolutionary fervour. In the July Days, the uprising that led to the temporary suppression of the Bolsheviks, the Bolsheviks had been dragged along, rather unwillingly, behind events. It was to cash in on these feelings that the slogan, “Bread, Peace, Land” was devised.
In late August the Commander of Petrograd, General Kornilov
, attempted to march on Petrograd and overthrow the Provisional Government. He had massed troops half way between Petrograd and Moscow, and began a serious attack on Petrograd. But once again the unreliability of the army was apparent and the troops just melted away. The immediate effect was to swing opinion, that had built up against the Bolsheviks after the July Days, back towards them.
When the Bolsheviks finally moved in October, it was quick. In Petrograd it was soon over. In Moscow resistance was greater, and fighting lasted for over three days, but the result was never really in doubt. The take over was quite easy, but the Bolsheviks’ troubles were only just beginning. The events in Petrograd had happened so quickly that the newspapers on October 26 came out with leading articles written the night before, talking of the “isolation of the Bolsheviks.” The Bolsheviks immediately began to show their hand, and on the first day the entire bourgeois press was shut down.
This was the shape of things to come. The Bolsheviks had used the revolutionary fervour of the masses, but they had no intention of acting in a democratic way. The long awaited Constituent Assembly was called, but as it gave a large majority to the opponents of the Bolsheviks, it was dissolved the same day. One by one the other political parties went down, and the murderous civil war, that was to rage for two years, was fought by as vicious an autocracy as ever the Tzar had been. In 1918 the Cheka, the new political police, were established and they soon acquired absolute powers. It was not in the gay, romantic, brave uprising of the legend, that Russia was to be changed, but in the grim butchery of the civil war, in the quiet killings in the cellars of the Cheka, and the famines which followed the attempts to collectivise the land. Workers will be well advised to study that grim chapter of history, known as the Russian Revolution, when they are confronted with glib invitations to solve their problems with violence.