Socialist and Peoples' History

The Russian Revolution: A Brief Guide


Soma Marik and Kunal Chattopadhyay

[Note. This was prepared as a study material for student radicals and young activists coming into the political movement. The material was prepared by looking at a number of books, articles and internet resources. But as it was not intended for publication, citations had not been provided, as it was our experience that for people who are not specialists, such large scale footnoting has a negative impact. In publishing this note on the occasion of the 93rd anniversary of the Russian Revolution in the Radical Socialist website, we apologise to all who may feel their works have been used without proper acknowledtgements, and if there are specific complaints we offer to immediately provide the due acknowledgements. We have, however, mentioned the principal books and articles within the text itself. We also acknowledge that this is a very sketchy outline, and wuld suggest a reading of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution as the classic narrative, as well as books like Rabinowitch's The Bolsheviks Come to Power, for those who want more in depoth studies. For Lenin and the party, we recommend Paul LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. We would also suggest Soma Marik, Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy.]
At the beginning of the 20th century Russia was a backward country – one of the developing countries of that age. In the mid-19th century, the huge, but untrained Russian army had been roundly defeated by Anglo-French forces at the Crimean War(1853-56). This had awakened a sense of peril, and under the reforming impulses of Tsar Alexander II, limited modernization had occurred. This involved the following steps:
(a)    Most crucial was the emancipation of the serfs. Till that time Russia continued to be a feudal autocratic state. Most peasants were serfs. Conscripted serfs formed the bulk of the army. Industrialization was practically unknown. Yet a modern army needed both an industry to provide equipment, and relatively better educated soldiers. This was the basic consideration that led to the emancipation of the serfs. In addition, Alexander was afraid of a peasant revolution, and told his nobles in a meeting: “It is better to abolish it [serfdom] from above before it abolishes itself from below.” But since it was a feudal state abolishing serfdom, it had limited reform motives. Personal freedom was granted free. But land, as demanded by the peasants was not given free. Instead, they had to accept a “redemption payment”. The state paid this amount to nobles in a lump sum, and the peasants were bound to repay the amount in many yearly installments to the state. Moreover, the repayment was imposed, not on individual peasants, but on communities (mir) as a whole. As a result, the peasants became tied to them. [For a detailed analysis see Rural Russia Under the Old Regime, by G. T. Robinson].  At the same time, the very promise of reform, and the coming of liberal and radical ideals from abroad, generated an expectation of greater reforms. Theda Skocpol (States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, Cambridge University Press (New York), 1979) argued that attempts by the state to modernize had only a partial success, and was substantially responsible for a revolution that would drive on to modernity. Even when peasants blessed the tsar for his act, they blamed the “evil counselors” of the tsar, who had tricked the peasants out of their land. Moreover, the entire land did not go to the peasants. Rather, a considerable part remained with the landlords. Among peasants, this gave rise to hopes for a later chernyi peredel [black or total repartition].
(b)    The abolition of feudalism meant an inevitable administrative reform, for hitherto peasants had been governed by their lords, while emancipation meant the need for courts, and different law enforcement agencies, and so on. So local self government bodies or zemstvos were set up. Some educational efforts were undertaken, both to produce a layer of workers who would have some skills, and for as very thin layer of middle class technical and other elements. But there was no democratization of the state. The state sponsored industrialization effort, begun under Alexander, but intensified during the reign of his son Alexander III by Count Sergius Witte, saw the growth of a few very modern, highly industrialized centres, like St Petersburg, Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Baku, etc. But the bulk of the country remained rural, mired in backwardness, oppressed by heavy taxation combined with the burden of redemption payment, ruled by local self-government bodies in which nobles remained the dominant class. Nonetheless, the educational reforms, the creation of zemstvos and city municipalities, created some scope for liberal oppositions to develop.
However, fundamentally Russia remained an autocratic state. There were no constitutional liberties. Under Alexander III, the slogan of One Church, One Nation and One Tsar meant the imposition of absolutist rule, the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the imposition of the Great Russian language and culture over all the national minorities. Jews were very badly treated, and anti-Semitism reached a level of pogroms and murders not surpassed till the Nazis. Non Russians were not allowed education in their own languages.
To keep up economically and militarily with the other major world powers, the Tsarist regime encouraged the development of industry in the later 19th century. One new class that resulted from the development of industry was the capitalists, or big-business men. The capitalists were little more than junior partners in the tsarist system. State aided industrialisation meant that a sizeable part of the capitalist class was dependent on the state for investments, orders, and so on. The development of industry created another major, and much larger, social class: the wage-earning working class. Some workers viewed the private ownership of the factories and the profit making of the capitalists as inherently unfair and exploitive. The working class made up slightly more than 10% of the population in 1917. However, these workers lived in a few large cities, many knew how to read and write, and they were receptive to a growing variety of new social and cultural influences. Moreover, their labour was essential in producing the goods and services of Russia’s new factories and service industries. For all these reasons, the working class was a major force for social change. However, both the tsarist regime and the capitalists often repressed their efforts for reforms. This repression, combined with poor working and living conditions, led many workers to become highly political and to support revolutionary organizations.
A significant number of men and women from the intermediate layers—as well as small numbers from the upper classes—became critical-minded intellectuals who were drawn in a revolutionary direction. Since Russia was a peasant majority country, inevitably, the first ideas about emancipation focused on the peasantry. They hoped to build a society free of exploitation basing themselves on the peasant Mir. When their propagandas failed, they turned to more direct action. This resulted in a split in their revolutionary organization, between the groups Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) and Chernyi Peredel. The former was led by Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Figner and others, and they turned to revolutionary terrorism, ultimately killing Tsar Alexander II. The other group was led by G. V. Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Pavel Axelrod, and ultimately turned to Marxism, forming, in exile, the first Russian Marxist political group. The descendants of the peasant socialism believers ultimately united in 1901 to form a more modern political party, the Socialist Revolutionary Party [SR], though even this party had a terrorist wing.

The background to the revolutions of 1917 starts properly with the revolution of 1905, known as the Dress Rehearsal of the revolution of 1917. All the issues of 1917 first came out in 1905, and all the major theoretical and political arguments were made. In the years before the revolution of 1905, the political consciousness of the working class and the peasantry was growing. This was due to two factors. On one hand, the very passage of time and the consolidation of the new society, a semi-feudal autocracy along with a limited growth of capitalism, brought to Russia the worst ill-effects of capitalism without getting rid of the exploitations of feudalism. Factory life in Russia was far worse than factory life in Western Europe or Germany. Witte’s policy of industrialization involved imposing a heavy tax on the peasantry in order to get the necessary finance. As a result, especially after the famine of 1891, there was a growth of peasant radicalization.
On the other hand, there emerged several political currents, which also played a role in developing the political consciousness of the mass of people. In 1898, the different Marxist groups, who had already been working to form trade unions, workers’ study circles, etc, united to form the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party [RSDLP]. By 1903, when their second Congress was held, rival strategies were being debated, and the Iskra group, led by Lenin, Plekhanov and Martov, was advocating a sharply political orientation instead of Economism. At the congress, after the early victories of the Iskra group, it split between the Majority (Bolsheviki) and the Minority (Mensheviki). The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, eventually developed a tighter revolutionary organization, with the development of a core group of professional revolutionaries, that is people who were full time party workers, and advocated distrust to the liberals, while the Mensheviks were in favour of a loose organisation where revolutionary activists and supporters would all find place, and were distrustful towards the peasantry. Party building showed that the core group of professional revolutionaries helped the Bolsheviks to recruit younger, militant workers. However, given the early age of marriage for women and their domestic burden in a highly patriarchal society, it also meant that working class women were not often recruited. The few women who became prominent in the Bolshevik current were mostly women of middle class or upper class background in this early phase. Indeed, only two working class women eventually became leaders -- Alexandra Artiukhina and Klavdiia Nikolaeva. Between 1901 and 1910, the number of women employed in the workforce went up by 18% at a time when male employment rose by only 1.3%. The first major attempts to recruit women in a big way was made during the revolution of 1905, when Alexandra Kollontai tried to mobilise women in the party. However, the resistance she faced, from both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, slowed down any progress. It would only be well after 1905, during the period from 1910 to 1914, when there was a revival of working class struggles and a need to mobilize the women workers, that Bolsheviks launched a journal Rabotnitsa, specifically for women workers.
Meanwhile, the SRs tried to organize the peasants, and advocated agrarian revolution. Their leadership included Victor Chernov, Natanson, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, and others.
A third group that developed was the liberal current. It was initiated by intellectuals like Pyotr Struve and Pavel Miliukov. But it also had the support of two important social groups. On one hand there were the zemstvo intelligentsia, that is, non-noble but well to do, educated people in the zemstvos and other places, who were there as professionals,  who stood in favour of a responsible ministry, some kind of rule of law instead of autocracy, freedom of the press at least for the upper classes, and so on. A second group were the emerging capitalists. By early twentieth century, sections of the capitalist class had come to desire political and economic reforms. Though their own goals were much more modest, they found it useful to support the radicals, as radical pressure would, they hoped, force Tsarism to give some reforms, or even a constitution.  Since the liberals were also repressed harshly by the autocracy, at times there could be alliances between the liberals and the socialists. Moreover, zemstvo liberals had certain rights, and could organize mild, but open campaigns.
A third factor that precipitated the revolution of 1905 was the Russo-Japanese war. Popular unrest had been growing since 1901, and strikes, peasant uprisings, as well as middle class discontent was increasing according to police reports. The Tsar’s advisers thought that a small war would rally public support behind the state. But the Russian defeat at the hands of the Japanese had the opposite effect. Following the fall of Port Arthur, discontent came out into the open. A trade union, formed by a priest in police pay, named Father Gapon, tried to organize a Sunday demonstration on 9 January 1905 to the Tsar. Though it was meant as a purely peaceful gesture, where the Tsar was being humbly petitioned, the army, under orders from General Trepov, shot down hundreds of people. This day, known as Bloody Sunday, initiated the revolution of 1905.
However, as the revolution unfolded, different parties and classes started reacting in different ways. The Liberals were not prepared to fight resolutely for democracy. The more moderate wing of the liberals accepted a decree of the Tsar, issued on 18 October 1905, after a heroic general strike of workers that had paralysed the two capitals of St Petersburg and Moscow. The decree promised certain civil liberties, and an elected Duma, but kept intact the powers of the autocracy to hit back. A full-fledged constitution was not promised. The moderates who accepted this came to be called the Octobrists. Slightly more radical were the Constitutional Democrats[Kadets]. However, even this major liberal party did neither campaign for universal suffrage or for abolition of semi feudalism with any compensation.
The general strike of October was not called by the parties. The strike grew out of an originally economic strike, and was coordinated by elected delegates from the factories. They set up a council of Workers’ Representatives. The Russian for Council was Soviet, and this is how the concept of soviets was born. The leading spirit in the St. Petersburg Soviet was Trotsky, who advocated a line of working class leadership and peasant support, based on the extension of such councils throughout Russia. He called this idea the permanent revolution, to culminate in the dictatorship of the proletariat and the struggle for socialism.  Lenin disagreed, and advocated a short-period of worker-peasant ascendancy when the democratic revolution would be carried out. The Mensheviks argued that since this was a bourgeois-democratic revolution, leadership would remain with the bourgeoisie, and opposed any idea of working class leadership in the revolution. As a result, the rise of Soviets and working class militancy was minimised by them. One dimension of the rise of soviets was the inflow of women in the Soviets, especially in a textile town like Ivanovo-Vozhnesensk, but also in St. Petersburg.
Through the October Manifesto, the Tsar sought an alliance with the liberals. This was further strengthened after the waning of the revolution. With liberal landlord and bourgeois support assured, during 1906-7, the Tsar and his ministers, especially Pyotr Stolypin, took steps to smash the revolution. By 1907, the original promises of the October Manifesto were much curtailed. Civil rights were very restricted. Trade unions were openly put under police surveillance. Electoral laws were made in such a manner that rightwing parties would always get a majority, with seats being apportioned according to class etc. The resulting representative assemblies, called Stolypin Dumas (the 3rd and the 4th Duma) saw an alliance of Tsarist, anti-Semitic, anti-worker parties like the Black Hundreds, along with the Kadets, Progressists and the Liberals. Peasant deputies formed a left leaning party called the Trudoviks, (infiltrated by the SRs), and the RSDLP had a small number of deputies. Stolypin attempted, through the right-wing alliance, to develop a kind of agrarian capitalism. By the time of his death, only partial success was achieved. He failed to break the peasant attachment to the Mir and to develop a class of well off peasant proprietor, who would be the large, lowest rung of the capitalist class.
The most important works on 1905 include Sidney Harcave, First Blood, S.M. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, and L. Trotsky, 1905. Schwarz tried to put forward a thesis that the Mensheviks were the real leaders of the revolution of 1905. Trotsky developed the thesis of working class self-emancipation and autonomous struggle. Harcave’s book provides a detailed history, including the struggle of peasants and the nationalities.
The coming of World War I meant a new crisis for Russian society-- a disaster for the tsarist regime as well. Russian industry lacked the capacity to arm, equip, and supply the 15 million men who were sent into the war. And the casualties were greater than in any previous war. Factories were few and insufficiently productive, and the railroad network was inadequate. Repeated mobilizations, moreover, disrupted industrial and agricultural production and the transportation system became disorganized. Discontent became rife, and the morale of the army suffered, finally to be undermined by a succession of military defeats. When the Duma protested against the inefficient conduct of the war and the arbitrary policies of the imperial government, the tsar and his ministers simply brushed it aside. As the war dragged on, Russia experienced increasing inflation, food shortages, bread lines, and general misery and by 1917 famine threatened the larger cities. The growing breakdown of supply, made worse by the almost complete isolation of Russia from its pre-war markets, was felt especially in the major cities, which were flooded with refugees from the front. Despite an outward calm, many Duma leaders felt that Russia would soon be confronted with a new revolutionary crisis. By 1915 the liberal parties had formed a progressive bloc that gained a majority in the Duma. It demanded the removal of Rasputin, the peasant monk from the court and a constitutional form of government. Rasputin’s assassination by a group of aristocrats, led by Prince Feliks Yusupov, failed to remove this faction from the court. Talk of a palace revolution in order to avert a greater impending upheaval became widespread, especially among the upper classes.
Meanwhile, among the masses, important changes had taken place. First, the working class had recovered, between 1910 and 1912, from the defeat of 1907. By 1913-14, political strikes had become common again. The war halted this process. Many militant workers were conscripted into the army. Many women were brought into the industrial labour force, which in the capital St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in a patriotic fervour during the war) had about 43% women. The number of women headed households increased as men were taken into the army. The new working class was less politicised, but it also had less memories of past defeats. Thus two distinct layers developed – the older, more mature workers, who often had party links from 1905-6, when all the socialists had become mass parties, and the younger workers.
War enabled the bourgeoisie to profit enormously. With capitalist development, liberal nobles, capitalists, and a significant part of the intelligentsia formed a wide bloc. Leopold Haimson, in his famous essay, ‘The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia’, discerns a threefold fragmentation. At the top were the Tsar and his coterie – the autocracy and the extreme reactionaries. Then came the bloc of liberal nobles, bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Finally there were the workers, and during the war also the soldiers, often peasants in uniforms.
In February 1917 socialists organized mass protest rallies in Petrograd. These protests took place on February 23, International Women’s Day, rallying women workers of the cotton textile industry to demand bread, peace, and liberty. But, as a contemporary police report stated, the women workers “got out of hand.” They attracted the support of large numbers of male workers as well. The police proved unable to contain the growing and increasingly volatile protests. Soon 385,000 workers were on strike, and many engaged in confrontations with the police in the streets. Troops were brought in, but they proved unable to quell the disturbances that engulfed the city over the next five days. In fact, the bulk of the soldiers, who were largely peasants in uniform, joined the insurgency. Consequently, a demand for land reform—to break up the large estates of the nobles and distribute the land among landless peasants—also became a major revolutionary demand. The workers and soldiers organized a growing network of soviets to coordinate their efforts and to establish control throughout the city.
On February 28 the last of the troops loyal to the tsar surrendered, revolutionary soldiers arrested the tsar’s ministers, and the tsar abdicated. At this point the Duma moderates, hoping to thwart the coming to power of what one of them called “the scoundrels in the factories,” established a government that became known as the Provisional Government[PG]. The Prime Minister, Prince Georgy Y. Lvov, was a wealthy landowner and a member of the Kadets, who favoured an immediate constitutional monarchy and ultimately a republic. The outstanding personality in the PG until early May was Pavel N. Milyukov, minister of foreign affairs and the strongest leader of the Kadets since its founding in 1905. He played the principal role in formulating policies. The most prominent of the moderate socialists was Aleksandr F. Kerensky, the minister of justice, who was associated with the SRs and had been the leader of the Trudovik faction in the Duma. At this time the now powerful soviets of the working-class districts were under the control of Mensheviks and SRs, and they mobilized popular support for the new coalition regime.
The strike wave had turned into a general strike almost spontaneously. The grassroots leadership had been provided by militant workers belonging to the Bolshevik party and to other radical left groups that would merge with the Bolsheviks during 1917. The first call for a general strike had been given by the Mezhraiontsi or Inter-Borough Organization of Social Democrats, a mainly St. Petersburg/Petrograd based group. Earlier, official Soviet claim had been that the Bolsheviks had called for a general strike. But the Russian historian Eduard Burdzhalov, after 1956, searched the archives and showed that the Mezhraiontsi had called for the strike. He was opposed by the historian I. I. Mints (articles published in Voprossi Istorii), but subsequent research has borne him out. But the Bolshevik and other radical workers lacked at that point a central leadership. Many of their leaders were in emigration. Others had been arrested and were in exile. Bolshevik Vyborg leader Kayurov later recollected in his memoirs that he had spent the night of 22nd February arguing with women that they should not call for a general strike, which may result in repression. Yet the next day the women did go ahead with the strike and called the men out on strike as well. Alexander Shlyapnikov, the Bolshevik leader, too was hesitant to issue a call for general strike, or for any insurrection, for they lacked sufficient organization as well as weapons. Yet the very fact that workers turned to Bolsheviks, or to smaller radical groups like the Inter-Borough Organization, is indicative of their mood.
The workers and soldiers were clear that they did neither trust the bourgeoisie, nor the autocracy or its agents. The collapse of the tsarist regime thus left in its wake two centres of political authority: (1) the traditional politicians of the PG, who had little control over the people, and (2) the democratically elected soviets, which exercised more political power owing to support from the great majority of workers and soldiers. This system of dual power proved to be unstable. The instability grew as the moderate politicians proved increasingly unable to meet the rising expectations of the labouring masses.
The Bolshevik party, though much more revolutionary, and though rank and file Bolsheviks had played a prominent role in the five days of the February Revolution, was unable to formulate an adequate strategy. The most important leaders who came back from exile, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, were basing their strategy on a line created during the earlier revolution of 1905. According to both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the Russian Revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution. It would end with the coming to power of a radical bourgeoisie who would carry out capitalist development and thereby make possible a socialist revolution some time in the future. Only one Marxist, Lev Trotsky, had put forward the idea that because of the fact that the bourgeoisie was a junior partner of tsarism, it would not fight for a revolution (Results and Prospects). So even the bourgeois democratic revolution, that is, introduction of political and civil liberty, and the carrying out of a radical agrarian revolution, would need the leadership of the working class. Lenin had agreed only partly. He believed in 1905 that workers must play a leading role, but only temporarily, till the democratic revolution was achieved. (Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution) Trotsky had argued that even the minimum goals of the socialists could not be achieved that way, because the capitalists would oppose even such things as setting up an eight hour working day. So, he argued, the workers, supported by the peasants, must take over power, and the result would be a combined revolution – where the bourgeois democratic and the socialist tasks would come together. In 1917, concluding from that old position of Lenin that the working class should not try to take power, Stalin and Kamenev argued that the task of the Soviets was to support the PG, but at the same time keep pressure on it.
In Petrograd the network of soviets quickly reorganized itself as a single soviet, a representative body of deputies elected by the workers and soldiers of the city. The Petrograd soviet immediately appointed a commission to cope with the problem of ensuring a food supply for the capital, placed detachments of revolutionary soldiers in the government offices, and ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners. On February 28 the soviet ordered the arrest of the Tsarist ministers and began publishing an official organ, Izvestia (Russian for 'the news'). On March 1 it issued its famous Order No. 1. By the terms of this order, the soldiers of the army and the sailors of the fleet were to submit to the authority of the soviet and its committees in all political matters. They were to obey only those orders that did not conflict with the directives of the soviet, and they were to elect committees that would exercise exclusive control over all weapons. Also, they were to observe strict military discipline on duty. Disputes between soldiers' committees and officers were to be referred to the soviet for disposition; off-duty soldiers and sailors were to enjoy full civil and political rights; and saluting of officers was abolished. However, it is because the socialist leaders were reluctant to keep power in their own hands, and, guided by a dogmatic idea that since it was a bourgeois revolution the bourgeoisie must lead, refused to take any step beyond what the bourgeoisie would accept, that the Provisional Government received even the shortest of stability. Even Marc Ferro, the social historian critical of the Bolsheviks, admits that a dual power was set up because of this limitation of the intelligentsia socialists. However, western historians have, sometimes, tried to draw a contrasting picture of a perfectly spontaneous February and a conspiratorial October Revolution, (e.g., Richard Pipes – The Russian Revolutions, or J.L.H. Keep, The Russian Revolution—A Study in Mass Mobilizations)
This system continued throughout the period from February to October. The PG consisted of the previous bourgeois-landlord opposition to the policies of the Tsar. The Prime Minister was assisted by the War Minister, Guchkov, the Octobrist and by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Miliukov, the Cadet. The Mensheviks and SRs who dominated the Soviet took the position that since this was a bourgeois democratic revolution, the bourgeoisie should form the government. But the mass of workers and soldiers, the majority of the latter being peasants in uniform, trusted only the soviets and the socialist parties leading the soviets. So it was only because the socialist parties, in the Soviets, gave support to the PG that it survived. Initially Shlyapnikov had taken the position that the PG should not be trusted. But when Stalin and Kamenev returned from exile, they advocated a division of labour, between the PG consolidating the gains of the revolution and the soviets acting as working class leaders. In effect, this meant trusting that the bourgeoisie would consolidate the revolution.
The most surprising evolution was in the case of the SRs. They had in the past advocated armed revolution and a direct transition to socialism. Their leader Victor Chernov had developed a programme of agrarian revolution. Yet, they came under the sway of Mensheviks, especially of rightwing Mensheviks like Tseretelli, rather than left wing Mensheviks like Sukhanov or Martov. As a result, using their influence over peasants, they called for trust in the PG. It was only because of this support extended by the two socialist parties that were initially most widely known among workers and soldiers (especially as they had many more intellectuals than had the Bolsheviks) that the soviets accepted the PG. But at each step, they also put their own influence. Thus, Order No.1, dictated by a soldier to the Socialist Skobelev, had to be accepted by the army. When some generals wrote a little later to Guchkov, protesting that it took away their powers, he told them that without soviet support he could not modify the order. Again, the Soviet had to issue a statement saying that it stood for immediate and just peace. By contrast, Miliukov, had secretly assured the Allied Powers that Russia would continue to honour all international treaties and take part in the war. When this became known, there was such uproar that Miliukov had to resign. Thus, the recognition of the PG by the Soviet did not end dual power but institutionalized it.
a)    The PG, at the behest of Miliukov, carried out secret dealings with the Allied forces. They promised to conform to the treaties signed by the Tsarist government. Though Miliukov was forced to resign, leaders of the PG never gave up this aspiration, for the secret treaties corresponded to long held goals of the Russian state and the ruling class, including an outlet to through the Black Sea. Hence the popular demand for peace remained a dream.
b)    War had devastated Russian industry. Some sectors were producing well because of military demands. But other sectors were hit hard. Several of Russia’s important areas were under German control. Many industries were not making good profit and workers were facing serious hardship, including also the sharp price rise due to food shortage. The working class demand for pay rise and an 8 hour working day could not be easily met. But the Soviet leaders told the workers to maintain an industrial peace and not to go on strike. Thus, in the name of giving opportunity to the revolutionary government, for two months there was a total freeze on strikes, despite the rising economic crisis. This was ultimately broken in the capital by the women employed in laundries. Several thousands of them struck work demanding shorter hours and higher wages, under the leadership of women Bolsheviks. Another development where the Provisional Government was found to be silent was over reforms of the factory regime. The factory regime in Tsarist Russia was terrible. Foremen had extremely arbitrary powers over the workers. Wage deductions were imposed for trifling reasons. Women workers were regularly subjected to sexual harassment. Workers themselves fought against this and created a democratic factory regime, by setting up factory committees.  Subsequently, as the economic crisis worsened, these committees demanded the establishment of workers’ control of production.
c)    In the countryside too, war had intensified economic crisis. The peasantry wanted the distribution of land and for them, the revolution meant nothing if landlordism was not abolished. But it was decided by the PG that no land reforms should occur before the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.
d)    The leaders who had come to power had done so almost accidentally. They did not represent the mass of people. The PG was formed chiefly out of the members of the Fourth Duma. So they were upper class opponents of the Tsar who had no sympathy for workers and peasants. To create a democratic polity, the first pre-condition was the convening of the Constituent Assembly. Yet the PG, having received power, was in no hurry to call a Constituent Assembly. The popular mood was clearly one where a republic would be declared. But as Miliukov wrote later in his book, this was not to the liking of many members of the PG and more generally within the upper classes. The Soviets, under the leadership of the Mensheviks and the SRs, had abdicated their powers. But every local election showed that the bourgeois parties were in a minority. Parties to the right of the Kadets virtually disappeared, and their members swelled the ranks of the Kadet party. Nevertheless, municipal and borough elections in Moscow, Petrograd, and other cities confirmed the trend, that the Menshevik-SR bloc formed the biggest grouping, the Cadets a minority on the right wing, and the Bolsheviks and assorted leftists a leftwing minority. Under such circumstances, pushing ahead for democracy was something the Cadets hardly desired.
In April the Bolshevik leader Lenin returned to Russia. Lenin had lived abroad, mainly in England and Switzerland, from 1900 to 1905 and again from 1907 to 1917. He had become convinced that consistent struggles for radical democracy in Russia would encourage workers and peasants to struggle for socialism. Lenin also believed that the devastation of World War I would inspire working people throughout the world to fight for socialism. He rallied the swelling ranks of Bolsheviks around slogans such as “Bread, Peace, Land” and “Down with the PG —All Power to the Soviets!,” formulated in his famous April Theses. His party became increasingly attractive to large numbers of bitter and disillusioned young workers, soldiers, and sailors.
At the end of May 1917, Leon Trotsky returned to Petrograd from a 10 year exile abroad. He found that the programme of the Bolsheviks had come essentially to include his ideas about “permanent revolution,” and he soon joined their ranks. Much of the rank-and-file membership of the Mensheviks also went over to the Bolsheviks at this time. Among the SRs, the rank and file and some of the younger leaders turned away from Kerensky and the older leaders associated with him. Various anarchist groups also came to advocate a socialist revolution. Eventually, shortly before the October Revolution, the left wing socialist revolutionaries split and formed a separate party.
Lenin’s return brought about a sharp struggle in the Bolshevik Party, after he published his April Theses and argued that there could be no separate bourgeois democratic revolution, even in the form of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”, and that the task was to oppose the PG and to fight for the establishment of Soviet Power. This was also the line advocated by Trotsky in articles in a New York socialist journal before he could return to Russia. On the basis of this convergence of ideas, Trotsky joined the Bolshevik party and became, after Lenin, its most important leader.
Another important influence in Bolshevism in 1917 was that of a number of women leaders, above all that of Alexandra Kollontai. Traditionally, the working class had been quite patriarchal, and even the leading layers, like the socialist parties, were not free of this outlook. But feminist Bolsheviks like Kollontai and others fought hard inside the party to change its attitude. By 1917, 2500 of the Old Bolsheviks were women, that is, within the party women formed 10% of the membership. They were able to bring out a journal specially addressed to women workers, entitled Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) in Petrograd and Zhizn Rabotnitsii (Life of Women Workers) in Moscow (where the leading spirit was Inessa Armand). It was their tireless organizing work that broke the social peace with the laundry worker women’s strike. Thus, women workers were a constituency where Bolshevik appeal was unusually strong in 1917. However, while the Bolsheviks emphasized class demands, they were not adequately sensitive to the gender issues within class, and only the women Bolsheviks paid attention to these issues, including equal pay for equal work, maternity benefits, and so on, along with the right and the opportunity for women to take part in political work. One demand that they repeatedly made but failed to obtain was the demand for a separate organisational structure to bring women into the party. Barbara Evans Clements [Bolshevik Women] and Ann Bobroff ['The Bolsheviks and Working Women 1905 - 1920', Soviet Studies, October 1974,] are historians who have shown both their work and their limitations in this respect. But the women Bolsheviks were able to persevere in their work, so that by November 1917, they had held a Conference of Women Workers, to mobilise hundreds of thousands of working class women to the Bolshevik and the Soviet cause. This would become the base from which, a year later, in late 1918, they would organise an all-Russian women’s meeting and launch a party women’s section or the Zenotdel.
The Bolsheviks supported all the demands of the workers, peasants, soldiers, and also of the oppressed nationalities. They advocated the Right of Oppressed nations to Self Determination. In effect, this meant they were proclaiming the right of Poland, Finland, and a number of other nations, forcibly kept in the Russian Empire, to independence. They strongly supported the workers’ control movement among the factory committees. This involved control over production and monitoring the factory management and their accounts to see whether factory closures were really due to losses. In essence, Lenin and his comrades won over the masses by three simple slogans – Peace, Land and Bread.
By the middle of 1917, workers, peasants and soldiers, all had lost faith in the PG. In June the First Congress of Soviets was held. Delegates of the soviets from all over Russia came to create a national network, and to elect a national leadership of the soviets, the All Russian Central Executive Committee or the VTsIK. At this Congress, the Bolsheviks though a minority ( about a fifth of the delegates), demanded the assumption of power by the Soviets. This proposal, if accepted, would have led to a government in which not the Bolsheviks, but the Mensheviks and the SRs would have been dominant. Yet the latter rejected this demand. This shows that the Bolsheviks stood, not for one-party rule, but working class democracy, while the Mensheviks and the SRs, indeed by this time, had made up their minds to work more directly with the bourgeoisie. In May, the first PG had resigned. A second PG was formed. This time, there were 10 capitalist ministers and 6 socialist ministers. But this did not imply any progress to socialism. Indeed, despite the entry of socialists in government, the PG did not declare Russia to be a Republic. This submission to the bourgeoisie was why the socialists rejected the idea of a soviet government, where the bourgeois parties would have no space. However, in order to gauge the mood of the workers, towards the end of the Soviet Congress, they called a mass rally of workers after banning a Bolshevik rally which would have called for Soviet power. The congress voted to organize an antiwar 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 removal of the capitalist politicians from the PG, thereby showing a greater affinity with the Bolshevik political line. This showed that while in the country the Bolsheviks were still a minority, in the capital they had already come to occupy centre stage.
In early July 1917, a section of soldiers who had been won over by the Bolshevik slogan of power to the soviets became impatient. They, with the support of some sections of militant workers wanted to start an insurrection by themselves. The Bolsheviks opposed this, but they also felt that a revolutionary party could not abandon the militant workers and soldiers. So they participated, aiming to turn a planned insurrection into a simple demonstration. The workers and soldiers surrounded the Soviet Executive, and one soldier told Victor Chernov, Take the Power you **** when it is given to you. Chernov was saved from possible violence only after the intervention of Trotsky. After the demonstration was finally dispersed, the government and the VTsIK called in troops loyal to them, and began a witch-hunt. Trotsky, Kamenev, and a large number of other Bolsheviks were arrested. Lenin and Zinoviev went underground.
However, the new government that emerged, with Kerensky as Prime Minister, soon overplayed its hand. Kerensky appointed General Kornilov as the commander of the army. Kornilov was a courageous general, personally relatively popular with the troops. After the summer 1917 offensive failed, Kornilov vigorously advocated using harsh measures to restore discipline in the army. Mostly conservatives and liberals along with some socialists, who were interested in restoration of order, found him more acceptable. The problems that lay ahead were signalled by Kornilov's remarkable acceptance conditions, especially that he would be "responsible only to [his] own conscience and to the whole people," and his insistence on a free hand to restore military discipline. During August, tensions surrounding Kornilov's presumed intentions grew. Leftist newspapers and orators warned that he was a potential counterrevolutionary military dictator, while conservative newspapers and speakers hailed him as the prospective saviour of Russia. People looking to break the power of the soviets and change the political structure began to organize around him, who clearly saw himself as a key figure in the regeneration of Russia and the reconstruction of Russian politics, perhaps by force. The problem lay in the fact that both Kerensky and Kornilov aspired to the position of Bonaparte of the Russian Revolution, and therefore there was sustained distrust between them. By September political tensions in Petrograd were high. Kerensky became convinced that the General planned a coup not only against the left, but also against him. Even his dismissal on September 9, could not stop Kornilov from launching army units toward Petrograd. But this quickly collapsed as delegates from the Petrograd Soviet convinced the soldiers that they were being used for counterrevolution. By September 12 the Kornilov revolt had foundered, and Kornilov and some other generals were arrested.
The Kornilov Affair discredited the moderate socialists and the liberals while the Bolsheviks and radical left, who had warned against the danger of a military coup, were now vindicated. Within a short while, Bolsheviks had defeated the moderate socialists in the Petrograd Soviet. Trotsky, released from jail, was elected the new President of the Petrograd Soviet, and this would be the position he would use to lead the October revolution. Bolsheviks won majorities, either alone, or in alliance with left wing Socialist Revolutionaries and Anarchists, in a great many city, regional, and military soviets. By early October, the slogan of All Power to the Soviets was being accepted by sizeable sections of the workers and soldiers. Moreover, as Steve Smith (Red Petrograd) and David Mandel (The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power) have shown, the demand for workers’ control became very popular, and the Bolsheviks led the movement.
Led by Lenin and Trotsky, from May to October, the Bolsheviks campaigned for a workers revolution, and ultimately on 26th October (7th November) the second revolution occurred. This has often been considered a coup. So we need to ask whether indeed it was a coup, plotted by Lenin, or whether it was a democratic revolution.
1. The Bolshevik slogan was All Power to the Soviets. They did not call for power for their party, but for workers and peasants. But at the First Congress of All Russian Soviets, the Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary majority turned down their call. Between August and September, after Kornilov tried to carry out a coup d’etat, the influence and power of Bolsheviks within the Soviets began growing. Trotsky was elected Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet even though the Government had a case against him for trying to foment an uprising.
2. The Bolsheviks demanded, through the Soviets, the calling of a Second Congress of Soviets. Initially the Menshevik-SR leaders of the All Russian Executive Committee did not want to call a new congress. In a large number of regional Congresses they won majorities for the slogan All Power to the Soviets.
3. At the Second Congress of Soviets, the proposal that the soviets should take power, that they should call for immediate peace and that the Decree on Land proposed by Lenin, based on the demands of the peasants themselves, were overwhelmingly adopted.
4. Critics have argued that the insurrection against the PG was undemocratic. Such critics include, in recent times, Orlando Figes. Earlier writes include Alexander Kerensky, The Crucifixion of Liberty, David Shub, Lenin, Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin, and others. In fact, it was the PG that was undemocratic. It had not been elected. Its composition had been repeatedly changed without the sanction of any elected Parliament. By September, the new Prime Minister, Kerensky, was behaving like a dictator. In order to give a semblance of legality, he convened a so-called Pre-Parliament, the composition of which was heavily tilted in favour of the wealthy classes, and which was set up by allotting an arbitrary number of seats to different groups of people. By early October, even army units in Petrograd were not obeying any orders of the Provisional Government unless countersigned by the Petrograd Soviet, led by the Bolsheviks.
5. It is often argued that Lenin and Trotsky were motivated by personal desire for power, or for purely party power, rather than for democratic soviet power. If we look at the events, this is not proved. As late as late August-early September, after the defeat of Kornilov, Lenin had again proposed that the Menshevik-SR bloc should take power at the head of the soviets, not because he supported these parties, but because he wanted power to the soviets, which represented the workers, peasants and soldiers, or the toiling people of Russia. Finally, the Bolshevik strategy, devised by Trotsky, of moving through the soviets rather than using only the party to call for an insurrection, showed a commitment to maximization of popular involvement and democratic sensibilities.
6. A recent recurrent argument is that the archival material has proved that the Bolsheviks destroyed a democratic alternative. Orlando Figes’ A People's Tragedy: Russian Revolution 1891-1924, is often cited as a major study. Yet his story contains nothing new, unless we look at some his more esoteric discoveries, such as the fact that Lenin used to exercise with barbells to build up his muscles, and was therefore macho character. Christopher Reed, From the Tsar to the Soviets, by contrast, looks at popular movements and the politics of common people.
Archival sources had already been tapped by social historians like Smith, Koenker, David Mandel, Suny, Rosenberg and others. What their studies, including those carried out after 1991 (like Mandel’s later book on factory committees) stressed was that the vast mass of workers and peasants rejected all alliances with the bourgeoisie, and that likewise the bourgeoisie refused any significant concessions to the workers along what would later be called a welfare state model. This class against class divide destroyed the hopes of the moderate socialists. Taking West European models, they assumed that democracy must mean a working partnership with liberals. But in Russia, the Liberals of the Kadet party were committed to counterrevolution, and had moved rapidly rightwing in 1917, as a result of the collapse of the parties of traditional right and a massive influx of members from those parties to the Cadet party.
The majority of the Mensheviks were under the leadership of Iraklii Tseretelli, who had immense prestige as he had been sent to Siberia as a hard labour convict. But unlike left Mensheviks like Sukhanov, or even Martov, Tseretelli was categorical that there must be an alliance with the liberals. Since the liberals, says William Rosenberg,(The Liberals in the Russian Revolution) did not even want a stable alliance with the Mensheviks (at the Kadet Party Congress the left liberal Nabokov was defeated by the Right Liberal Miliukov), all Tseretelli’s line could achieve was restrain the Mensheviks. At the First Soviet Congress, with over 800 delegates, the majority supporting Mensheviks and SRs, the question of power was avoided. At the Democratic Conference and the Pre-parliament, both artificial bodies created by Keresnky to prop up his Bonapartist ambitions, the Mensheviks and SRs rejected alliance with the Kadet party under pressure from their base, but then voted for a national government including representatives of the bourgeoisie (a meaningless exercise if the main bourgeois party was excluded). That the liberals wanted no stable democracy is shown by their refusal to convene the Constituent Assembly at an early date, and further by their systematic support to the Kornilov coup plan. George Katkov in [Russia 1917, the Kornilov affair: Kerensky and the Break-up of the Russian Army, London; New York: Longman, 1980], denied that there had been a coup actually planned. But Rosenberg cites a series of Kadets to show their support to Kornilov. Z. Galili, in The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies (1989) points out that Kerensky refused to submit his government to any accountability even to the Pre-Parliament that he created in September-October in order to provide a fictitious political basis for his government. Thus, it is clear that there was, in 1917, no democratic alternative to the Soviets, which indeed were the most democratic bodies.
Lenin has been seen, by critics, as an authoritarian with a drive for power in an opportunistic manner. Such critics include L.B. Schapiro – The Origins of Communist Autocracy, Adam Ulam – Lenin and the Bolsheviks, David Lovell – From Marx to Lenin, etc.
(1)    Party building – a workers’ revolution is not possible without revolutionary leadership. Without self organization the working class is a mass for exploitation. So the vanguard party should be proletarian and democratic. The party should not lag behind the mass movement. To build the party meant to unify and centralize the vanguard layer. According to his analysis in What is To Be Done?, the working class was segmentary. The fragmentary experiences of the class had to be overcome and a rounded view developed. A problem mentioned by critics with his theory was the insistence that revolutionary theory was a science produced by bourgeois intelligentsia. But this was a position that he gave up after the revolution of 1905.
(2)    In 1917, his role was essential in changing the political line of the party from one of being leftwing critical supporters of the dual power to revolutionary opponents who wanted to overthrow the bourgeoisie.
(3)    Lenin’s pressure was important for the ultimate decision of the Bolsheviks to take the path of insurrection in October 1917. Leaders like Zinoviev and Kamenev were arguing against an insurrection. By appealing to the party ranks over the heads of the leadership, it was Lenin who got the party to turn to majoritarian revolution through the soviets.
(4)    It was Lenin who, due to his commitment to majority views, changed the agrarian programme. At the Second Soviet Congress, where power was taken by the Bolsheviks, the land policy that Lenin put forward through his Decree on Land was essentially a SR programme as developed by the Congress of peasant Deputies.  At the time of the April Theses, this had been Lenin’s Agrarian Programme: “In the agrarian programme, the emphasis must be shifted to the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies. A separate organisation of Soviets of Deputies of the poorest peasants. Creation of model agricultural establishments out of large estates (from 100 to 300 desiatins, in accordance with local and other conditions and with the estimates of local institutions) under the control of the Soviet of Agricultural Labourers' Deputies, and at public expense.” This was changed after the Congress of peasant deputies, which showed the democratic will of the peasants, and which, Lenin felt, could not be ignored. A whole series of studies show that the revolution was democratic and working class in character. One can mention David Mandel’s book, as well as Ernest Mandel – October 1917 – Coup d’Etat or Social Revolution? Or Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power. Any serious examination of Lenin’s role in the Bolshevik party will show that he insisted on democracy, majority decisions, and wide ranging debates within as well as outside the party.  This is seen in two major studies – Marcel Liebman – Leninism Under Lenin, and Paul LeBlanc – Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. 4 occasions can be mentioned: (a) The conflict between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – Lenin openly campaigned for a third party congress to settle the debate. (b) The formation of the Soviets for the first time in 1905, and the attitude of Bolsheviks to it. Lenin was in favour of the party not dictating terms but joining it. Other Bolsheviks wanted to have nothing to do with the Soviets. There was extensive discussion over this. (c) The liquidationism controversy in the party. There were several positions over this. And the party saw extensive debates. There were the majority of Menshevik intellectuals, who wanted to do away with the underground party and work within the limited liberties given by the repressive Stolypin regime. There were the Bogdanovists or Recallists, who were opposed to using the legal structures altogether. They opposed sending party members to the Duma, and wanted party work in the working class to be concentrated on the underground committees. Lenin opposed both of these positions, for he wanted a combination of legal and underground work. (d) During the month of April 1917, the Bolshevik party debated openly, including in the pages of the party press, the rival lines of Lenin (the April Theses) and Kamenev.
Thus, when we assess the role of Lenin, we should see him as a leader of a mass revolution, not a conspirator.