Russian Revolution: 1. The Road to October
There was not one revolution in Russia in 1917, but two. Yet because history is written chiefly about the victors, historians usually know more of the second revolution than the first. ‘This series of articles will analyse the events which gave rise to and followed from the October revolution, but we would be in error to regard the second revolution as the first’s inevitable consequence.
There are numerous interpretations of the causes of the February revolution, ranging from Trotsky’s false claim that it was the act of workers who had swallowed the propaganda of the Bolsheviks to Miliukov’s absurd suggestion that the workers revolted because they wanted the Duma (the consultative parliament set up by Nicholas II in 1906) to pursue a more vigorous war policy. In fact, ideological preoccupations aside, the revolution can be viewed as a spontaneous act of resistance against the feudal autocracy of Tsarism by war- weary soldiers, starving workers and landless peasants. A secret police report written at the time clearly explains the situation:
. . . the proletariat in the capital is on the verge of despair. It is believed that the slightest disturbance, on the smallest pretext, will lead to uncontrollable riots with thousands of victims. In fact, the conditions for such an explosion already exist. The economic condition of the masses, despite large rises in wages, is near the point of distress. . . . Even if wages are doubled, the cost of living has trebled. The impossibility of obtaining goods, the loss of time spent queuing up in front of stores, the increasing mortality rate because of poor housing conditions, the cold and the dampness resulting from the lack of coal . . . all these conditions have created such a situation that the mass of industrial workers is ready to break out in the most savage of hunger riots. (The Red Archive, Vol. 26, Chap. XXV, p. 14.)
The February revolution was an expression of different class aspirations: the capitalists longed for the liberty of the West, the workers wanted better conditions, the peasants wanted the land which they believed was rightly theirs; apart from these, the soldiers wanted the end of the war. The three Provisional governments set up between February and October were however unable to fulfil the needs of the Russian population. This was because their leaders waited in vain for the problems to be solved by a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. While the Cadets (the bourgeois constitutional democrats) and the social democrats waited for the masses to decide on the matters affecting them, the Bolsheviks stepped in and decided for everyone. How were they able to do this?
Three factors primarily contributed to the Bolshevik success. The first was the Provisional government’s abysmal attempt to win the war, which lost it the support of those who had risen in February to bring about peace. The Bolsheviks, who were the only party to unequivocally expose the war as an imperialist exercise, had a powerful stick with which to beat the government of Kerensky and Miliukov. The disastrous failure of the June 18 offensive and the dangers presented by the attempted military coup by General Kornilov in August did much to accelerate this popular swing towards the Bolsheviks.
Secondly, the Bolsheviks were the most capable political organisers in the chaotic conditions then prevailing. The Leninist concept of the professional revolutionaries guiding the masses in a direction which the latter were too ignorant to perceive, while a travesty of the Marxist theory of revolutionary activity, was successful. The Bolsheviks were able to mobilise vast masses of people behind a disciplined vanguard, while their rivals—the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries—argued amongst themselves about the ‘best tactics’. In the face of war and chaos the workers sought new leadership; the Bolsheviks volunteered themselves as leaders.
The third reason for the Bolshevik success was that they offered everything to everybody. By demanding immediate peace, land for the peasants, workers’ control and soviet rule the Bolsheviks could play the role of the Father Christmas of Russian politics. These objectives were inconsistent and sometimes secretly rejected by their advocates; what mattered before October 1917 was political power: and for the Bolsheviks the end justified the means.
The Bolsheviks aimed to convert the soviets from workers’ councils which put political pressure on the bourgeois government to revolutionary bodies through which the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ could be achieved. What made easier their conquest of the soviets was the increasing burcaucratisation of he soviet machinery: more and more, as the year went on, were the soviets dominated by their executive organs. The creation of hierarchies allowed Leninist ‘professional revolutionaries’ to occupy positions of authority without direct responsibility. As spontaneous self-expression declined, party manipulation grew. Large urban soviets began to control surrounding soviets. By the time of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in June the process of centralisation became national and a controlling executive was set up (two thirds of the members of which were provided by the Petrograd soviet). At first the disproportionate influence of the Petrograd Executive benefitted the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries but, as the year went on and discontent grew, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in Petrograd and so had control of the entire soviet network.
Their task was made easier by the fact that workers were outnumbered in the soviets by soldiers who were essentially peasants in uniform. These were the people who went over to the Bolsheviks in the second half of 1917; most experienced urban workers were more attracted by the programme of the Mensheviks, which was essentially a policy of trade unionism.
After Lenin’s return to Russia in April the Bolsheviks adopted his political thesis that ‘the bourgeois revolution should be turned into a revolution for the dictatorship of the workers and poor peasants’. After April they waged war on the other Left parties in the soviets, accusing them of being supporters of the Russian bourgeoisie. Many political theorists were attracted to the Bolsheviks by this prospect of creating socialism out of the backward Russian economy. But what did they mean by ‘the next stage of the revolution’? What did Lenin mean by socialism? Would Bukharin and the Moscow Bolsheviks agree with Lenin’s definition? Could the Bolsheviks control history or would historical conditions control them? These questions were provoked by the excitement of 1917.
. . . the workers sought to ameliorate their condition, not to transform it. (The Russian Revolution of February 1917.)