The fight for democracy and social justice in 1917

90 years of the Russian revolution

This article appeared in the Egyptian revolutionary socialist magazine, Socialist papers - Issue 18, December 2007. · PDF in Arabic

This October is the 90th anniversary of the Russian revolution. For today’s movements for global justice and real democracy, that revolution should be an important part of our history, from which we can learn a lot.

Unfortunately, very few activists see the Russian revolution in that way. They rightly reject the Stalinist dictatorship which Russia became, but accept the right wing argument that this was an inevitable result of the revolution itself.

The truth is that the October revolution had nothing to do with bureaucratic dictatorship, but was a genuine example of how ordinary people can change things and take massive steps towards creating a better world.

This article will describe how Russian workers and peasants made the revolution, and suggest some things we can learn from their experiences.

“The dress rehearsal” of 1905

Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was a massive and backward empire which had been dominated for centuries by a Tsarist monarchy. It included many different oppressed nations, from Poland in the West to millions of Muslims in Central Asia, all suffering under Russian nationalism and its state religion, the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of its 150 million people were peasants, living in terrible poverty.

But capitalist industry had already developed in the main cities, especially the capital, St Petersburg. There were factories bigger than those of Western Europe, and there were already important workers’ struggles, as well as the beginnings of trade union and socialist organisation.

At the beginning of 1905, a trade union dispute exploded to become the first Russian revolution. Four workers from the massive Putilov factory were dismissed from their jobs, because of their participation in a very moderate trade union which had been set up by Father Gapon. He was a priest, and probably a police agent, but his union had to support the sacked workers or lose all its credibility. They organised a strike and then a mass demonstration. 200,000 workers marched, carrying pictures of the Tsar, to ask him to help them. The Tsar ordered the army to shoot, killing more than a thousand people. This was the spark which set off the revolution. Strikes spread across the Russian empire; peasants attacked the landowners; many soldiers and sailors mutinied when they were ordered to attack the people.

The struggles continued for the rest of 1905. Finally, they died down, but the revolution left very important lessons for the movement.

Although Russia was mainly an agricultural country, mass strikes by workers had been central to the revolution. The great Polish revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, wrote later about how economic struggles and political struggles could strengthen each other. Mass strikes for economic demands could teach thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of workers about their own power and ability to change things. This power could then be applied to the political fight for democracy and against the monarchy.

This revolution was also the first time that soviets appeared. The different factories on strike in St Petersburg sent delegates from their strike committees to coordinate the struggle across the city. This became the Soviet, a council of delegates directly elected by the workers, and who could be changed by them at any time. Gradually, soldiers and peasants also elected representatives to this system of democracy from below.

Democracy, socialism and revolution

Finally, 1905 posed the question of what to fight for in Russia; merely capitalist democracy, or socialism? This question takes us into the confusing and factional world of the Russian left at that time.

The oldest political tendency was the Social Revolutionary party, the descendants of the Populists who had carried out heroic terrorist attacks on Tsars and Government ministers in the late 19th century. In principle they were in favour of a sort of peasant based socialism. But in reality, given that few peasants were interested in fighting for socialism, the party was led by intellectuals. More importantly, it was centred on the activity of these intellectuals: first their armed actions; later their parliamentary activities. Despite their sometimes very radical rhetoric, the Social Revolutionaries, or SRs, ended up as a reformist party, whose maximum aim became bourgeois democracy, not socialism.

There were also two main Marxist factions in Russia at that time; the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. They had divided over apparently strange arguments in 1903. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, had argued for a clearly defined revolutionary party which fought for its ideas among workers. The Mensheviks wanted a more diffuse organisation that acted more as a reflection of the ideas of the movement, than as a distinct force within it.

The 1905 revolution, and above all, 1917, showed that these two visions of the party led to very different ways of acting.

The Mensheviks, following what they thought was orthodox Marxism, argued that in a backward country like Russia, the next stage of social development had to be a capitalist society, in which they could then start another struggle for socialism. The job of the workers, and of revolutionaries, was to encourage the bourgeoisie in its struggle for democracy. So the Mensheviks tried to hold back workers’ struggles, so as not to frighten the capitalists.

The Bolsheviks agreed that the next Russian revolution would result in bourgeois democracy. But they argued that the bourgeoisie itself would not fight consistently; at key moments, they would hesitate and pull back from the struggle. So the main role in the revolution would have to be played by workers, though the backwardness of Russia meant that at the end, the result could only be capitalism. On this final point, they were shown wrong in 1917, but their emphasis on workers’ struggle would allow them to play a decisive role in the next revolution.

Leon Trotsky, then a young revolutionary activist, argued something very different. He insisted that Russia had to be seen as part of a capitalist world system, of which the Russian bourgeoisie formed a part. They didn’t like the Tsarist dictatorship, but they hated workers’ struggles even more, so even though they wanted bourgeois democracy, they wouldn’t fight for it seriously. The workers would have to lead the revolution, but they would have no interest in then giving power to the capitalists. In Russia alone they couldn’t create socialism, but as part of a world struggle, above all linked to revolutions in the rest of Europe, the Russian revolution could be the first step in creating a new world without capitalism.

The fight for democracy and against Tsarism in Russia had to be part of a fight for international socialism. At that time, almost nobody else on the left agree with him, but this was what would happen in 1917.

After the defeat of 1905

The defeat of the revolution brought setbacks on all fronts. There were very few strikes, and those that took place were usually defeated. What this meant in reality was that workers had to accept terrible working conditions and severe poverty. In the country, the suffering of the peasants continued. The oppression of the national and religious minorities worsened.

The organised left almost disappeared, partly because of the police repression, but above all because very few people believed they could change the world. In these conditions, the small number of revolutionary activists remaining had to take advantage of any opportunity to act; they participated in the few workers’ organisations permitted by the state; they stood in elections; and they went through difficult arguments about what had to be done, which often led to splits in the party.

The downturn in struggles didn’t last very long: by 1910, there were big student protests, and between 1912 and 1914, the number of strikes returned almost to the levels of 1905. But, even 90 years ago, social struggles in one country were affected by events in the rest of the world. This upsurge in strikes was cut off by the beginning of the First World War, in August 1914.

Many workers who only months before had been fighting their bosses, suddenly accepted patriotic arguments. Worst of all, the leaders of almost all the moderate left parties supported the war, at first reluctantly, but then with more and more enthusiasm and warlike phrases.

On the surface, it would seem that all the strikes and protests of the previous years had meant nothing. But history doesn’t work like that.

Women workers start the new revolution

In February 1917, Russia had been at war for almost three years. Faced with Germany, a more advanced country, the losses and suffering on the Russian side were enormous. Two and a half million Russian soldiers died; civilians suffered terrible social conditions. The Russian capitalists, like those of all the countries in conflict, were getting richer and richer.

There was some popular discontent with the war, but nobody on the left was thinking of revolution.

So when women textile workers in St Petersburg proposed celebrating International Day of Working Women —23 February, according to the Russian orthodox calendar then in force— with a strike, the left was against the idea. Even the revolutionaries thought that it was too risky to do more than organise a rally. The women workers paid no attention; they went on strike, and took 90,000 other workers, men and women, with them. The strikes spread rapidly, in an explosion of the tension and anger that had accumulated over years. The Cossacks, the soldiers that had always repressed the workers, started to support them against the police. Within days, the Tsar —symbol of centuries of oppression— had fallen. On 27 February, the St Petersburg Soviet was re-established.

It was a new revolution, planned by nobody, expected by nobody. The question was, what should happen next?

Where to?

Now, 90 years later, the Russian revolution is known, for better or worse, as a communist revolution. But most of the leaders of the movement in March 1917, just after the fall of the Tsar, had a completely different idea.

There was a situation in Russia known as dual power. On the one hand, there was the Provisional Government. This represented the remains of the old state power, which many of the politicians were trying to recreate, with state officials, police chiefs, army officers and so on. On the other, there were the mass organisations of the workers, and gradually of the peasants and soldiers: the Soviets.

The problem was that the soviets were led by reformist politicians; Mensheviks and SRs. For these parties, the February revolution had more or less finished what needed to be done: the Tsar had fallen and there was a promise of a parliamentary system. The soviets had contributed to the struggle, but should now play a secondary role, or even disappear.

The Bolsheviks had serious internal debates in March and April 1917, and ended up adopting the position that Trotsky had defended. Their roots among the workers allowed them to see that the February revolution had only begun a process that had to go a lot further; to establish democracy not only in Parliament, but in the whole of society and the economy. There had to be a socialist revolution in Russia, as a step towards an international struggle to overthrow capitalism. So, far from the Soviets fading away, they had to move forward and take power in their hands, not leave it all to the parliamentary system which the more intelligent bourgeois leaders, and the moderate socialists, were promising.

While these arguments might seem abstract, they had very real implications.

Patiently explain

Before February 1917, the moderate socialists, or reformists, had mainly accepted the war, although sometimes with criticisms. But now they were actively in favour of Russia’s fight against Germany, saying it was the “defence of the revolution”. Soldiers who deserted faced court martial, the same as before. Poor peasants who occupied the rich people’s land were now told they had to wait until a Constituent Assembly could decide about land reform. Workers were warned against occupying the factories to try to control production.

So the originally moderate idea of looking for small, gradual improvements in society meant, in the context of a real live revolution, fighting against the mass movement to try to restore the old system, with some democratic decoration.

The advantage for the moderate socialists was that at the beginning of the struggle, most workers, and even more of the peasants and soldiers —who were basically peasants in uniform— supported them. Most people thought that the fall of the Tsar and having socialist ministers in Government was enough to improve their lives.

So while one of Lenin’s slogans from April 1917 onwards was “all power to the Soviets”, the other was “patiently explain”. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party were in favour of a second, socialist revolution to establish soviet power, but this was only possible if the workers wanted it. It made no sense to try to impose workers’ power from above. The job of revolutionaries was, working side by side with other workers in day to day struggles, to convince them of the need for another revolution.

While the moderate socialists continued the war, the Bolsheviks supported the soldiers and others who protested against it. Where the reformists told the millions of people in the oppressed nations to “wait for the Constituent Assembly” —but refused to create it— the Bolsheviks called for the right of self determination, and complete national and religious freedom. While the traditional peasant party, the SRs, told peasants to wait for the land, Lenin and the Bolsheviks encouraged them to take it for themselves.

The Bolsheviks had only had 4% support in the St Petersburg Soviet at the end of February 1917. With their work in the day to day struggles, and person to person arguments in the workplaces and barracks, they won more and more people to their position of the need to make a new revolution. But they also had to avoid attempts by the radicalised sectors to make that revolution straight away, without majority support.

Dictatorship or workers’ power

In June 1917, the Provisional Government tried to send more soldiers from St Petersburg to the war. The response of the revolutionary soldiers, above all of the Bolshevik soldiers’ organisation, was to push for an insurrection. The party managed to limit the action to a demonstration, on 4 July. Many thousands participated in the protest, but they were still a minority, and with confused ideas.

The reformist parties, both in the leadership of the Soviets and in the Provisional Government, used the demonstration as an excuse to repress the Bolsheviks.

Trotsky and others were imprisoned, and Lenin went into hiding to escape the same fate. Meanwhile, Kerensky, reformist leader in the Provisional Government, became Prime Minister. For some days or weeks, many workers and soldiers believed the lies spread by the press, saying that the Bolsheviks were agents of Germany, and a danger to the revolution.

The repression didn’t solve the moderate socialists’ problem. They wanted to carry out their program of handing power to a democratic capitalist government, with a parliament in which they could act as opposition. But the capitalists weren’t really interested in democracy; their option was more and more clearly that of military dictatorship. Workers were discovering from their own experience that a new revolution was necessary. And the soldiers didn’t want to die in the new military offensive that had sparked off the latest crisis; gradually the lies about the supposed threat of the Bolsheviks convinced them less than the real threat of the war.

Now that the Bolshevik newspapers had been banned and many of their leaders were in prison, the far right decided it was time for them to take control. At the end of August, the military commander General Kornilov attempted a coup. He started to move his troops to take over Saint Petersburg, the capital of Russia. This was an attack not only against those who wanted a new revolution, but even against the limited advances that had been made with the spontaneous democratic revolution in February, and against the reformists.

Though the reformist leaders were happy to repress the Bolsheviks, they didn’t want to lose power and end up in prison as well. By this time they had very little support among ordinary workers and soldiers, especially in Saint Petersburg, so their only option was to ask the Bolsheviks to help organise the struggle against Kornilov’s coup. Despite the repression they had suffered at the hands of the reformists, the Bolsheviks agreed, but on their own conditions.

They didn’t support Kerensky’s government; rather, they led the struggle against the coup from below, through the soviets. It was the ordinary soldiers, and above all the workers, those who defeated Kornilov. Rail workers, telegraph workers, drivers, even cleaners —those whose work was normally invisible and ignored— all made it impossible for the General to move his troops to attack the capital. Women workers went to argue with his soldiers, convincing them not to support him. Trotsky, in his brilliant book History of the Russian Revolution, describes how the revolutionaries sent a group of Muslim leaders from Central Asia to speak with soldiers of a Muslim regiment in Kornilov’s forces. They realised they had been supporting the wrong side, arrested their Russian commander and hung the revolutionary banner “Land and Freedom” from the railway wagon of their high command.

The struggle against the coup showed many more ordinary workers and soldiers, as well as many peasants, that the Bolsheviks were right. In this period, they won majorities in many city soviets, above all in St Petersburg, where Trotsky was elected President of the Soviet.

Towards insurrection

The only way to protect and advance the gains that had been made in the February revolution was to make a new, socialist revolution, for the workers to take power for themselves. The options were to either wait for another military coup, or finish off the old capitalist state and create a workers’ state.

Surprisingly, the question of a new revolution now provoked a big debate inside the leadership of the Bolshevik party. Despite the years of talking about the need for a revolution, and having argued since early 1917 for all power to the soviets, a significant part of the party’s central committee was not at all sure about doing this in practice. We must remember that since April 1917, they had been warning against trying to take power when there wasn’t majority support. Now Lenin and Trotsky argued that there was support, that it was now or never. Other members of the leadership wanted to keep waiting. Still others, like Stalin, wavered in between.

So through much of September and until early October 1917, Lenin sent letter after letter from his place of hiding (the reformist government kept renewing the order for his arrest), calling on the Bolshevik leaders to prepare for a new insurrection, and criticising their hesitation. The party Central Committee voted to burn his letters. Lenin encouraged local Bolshevik activists to pressure the party leadership, to force them to take the initiative that was necessary.

Finally, on 10 October, Lenin attended a meeting of his party’s Central Committee—disguised, because he was wanted by the police. After 10 hours, the meeting voted for the insurrection.

Now there remained the practical work of organising it.

One problem was that the Bolsheviks were calling for all power for the soviets, but these were controlled by a Central Executive Committee (CEC) dominated by Mensheviks and SRs, elected at the first Congress of the Soviets of all Russia, held in June. The Bolsheviks had won a lot of support since then, and would win the majority at the next Congress, which was meant to be held in September. Knowing they would lose their power, the reformist leaders of the CEC refused to call the Second Congress. The struggle from below to force them to respect the democracy of the Soviets was the last step in convincing many workers and soldiers to abandon the reformists and support the Bolsheviks. Finally, under pressure, they agreed to call the Congress for 25 October.

Meanwhile, Trotsky convinced the other Bolshevik leaders that the insurrection should not be carried out in the name of the Party, but of the soviets themselves. The Petersburg Soviet, led by the Bolsheviks, became the organising force for the new revolution. The Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee began to take on the responsibility of coordinating the resistance against another military coup. 22 October 1917 was named Day of the Petersburg Soviet, and massive meetings across the city voted to fight to defend the revolution, and the demands of bread, peace and land.

When the Provisional Government and the military authorities tried to limit the powers of the Soviet and to close two left wing newspapers, the Military Revolutionary Committee announced that the revolution was under attack and that the time had come to take arms to defend it.

So the night of 24 October, groups of armed workers, soldiers and sailors carried out the insurrection that opened the door to the socialist revolution. Very few people died in the uprising; almost all the workers and soldiers were in favour of the revolution, and the upper class people who opposed it were not prepared to die fighting.

On 25 October, the Second Congress of the Soviets of all Russia declared a new state based on the power of ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers.

The new state was the opposite of the dictatorial Tsarist state it replaced. It called for an end to the war, instead of intensifying it. It supported the workers who took over their factories, and the peasants who occupied the land, instead of repressing them. It declared the freedom of the national and religious minorities.

And these were not simply promises that would be broken by politicians, once they got accustomed to power. The Bolsheviks that led the new state, with a majority in the new soviet Executive Committee, only had power in so far as they convinced the ordinary people of their policies. The Soviet decrees were a program for political struggle from below, carried out by the people themselves.

Recover the revolution

For those of us who today, 90 years later, continue fighting against war, against social injustice and for democracy, their achievements are an example of the power of ordinary people.

Now we know that the experience didn’t last very long. A socialist revolution in Russia only made sense as part of an international struggle to defeat capitalism. In the years following 1917, there were revolutionary struggles in most of Europe, as well as in other parts of the world. There were factory committees, even soviets, in Italy, Germany Hungary, and other countries. But in none of these was there a revolutionary left organised and strong enough to resist the combined forces of the bourgeoisie and the reformist leaders who supported them.

And the Russian economy was weakened by the Civil war —the Russian bosses and the Western Governments tried to invade Russia to defeat the revolution— and by its isolation from the rest of the world economy. It went into severe crisis, and the working class, which had been the basis of the Bolsheviks and the revolution itself, almost disappeared. Factories hardly worked, or closed down completely. Many of the leading activists from 1917 were dead in the Civil War, or had gone to work in the new state. By 1923, the soviets didn’t really exist, except in name.

Without the power from below, the state gradually became more bureaucratised. Many important functions were carried out by specialists; professional technicians and engineers in the factories, and in the army, officers who had served under the Tsar. At first, they had been controlled by representatives of the workers’ and soldiers’ organisations. But now they started to decide things for themselves.

The Bolshevik Party, for a time, could act as a replacement for the vibrant workers’ democracy of 1917, but even that imperfect situation didn’t last long.

Stalin, who had been a minor figure in the Bolshevik leadership in 1917, became General Secretary of the Party. Before, this had been an administrative job; important for the practical workings of the organisation, but not a leading political post. Now Stalin used his position to eliminate the democracy that still existed within the Party; for example, naming from above delegates to the Congresses that had to elect the leadership.

The advances made in the revolution of 1917, from workers’ living conditions to the rights of the religious minorities, started to come under attack.

In 1928, this process culminated in the first five year plan and the state expropriation of the peasants’ land. The whole of the economy —not just in Russia but in all of the USSR, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan— was now directed to compete, economically and militarily, with the West. The top layer of Russian society —state bureaucrats, factory bosses, top army officers— became a new type of capitalist class.

It was this state capitalist Russia, controlled by Stalin, that made famous the labour camps and the Moscow show trials of 1936-38. It was this Stalinist system that was later extended to Eastern Europe after the Second World War… and which fell to the popular uprisings of 1989.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget what was achieved in 1917.

Democracy and revolution today

Of course, Russia then was a different country from any that exists now. But we still face many of the same issues.

War; dictatorship; underdevelopment in the countryside and terrible poverty in the overcrowded cities; national and religious divisions; women’s oppression; all of these are major problems for us today.

The Russian revolution showed that they could only be really resolved by combining them with the struggle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. On many of these issues, it is possible to create broad alliances —which may even include some capitalists— and such alliances are important. But, as we can see from the experience of 1917, even the most progressive capitalists are more interested in their profits than in fighting for democracy or against imperialism. This is logical; their system depends on a few people exploiting the majority, so real democracy in society as a whole is against their interests. On the other hand, even a worker that has little interest in politics, and only wants enough salary to live on, can find that circumstances oblige him or her to join a union and go on strike. So for workers, democracy becomes an essential part of trying to get a decent life.

The final practical point is this. The October revolution was made possible by a combination between, on the one, hand, spontaneous mass struggles, and on the other, the conscious organisation of the most committed activists in a revolutionary party.

The spontaneous struggles rise and fall all the time; as activists we must do what we can to participate in them and to try to push them forwards.

But to do that we also need a revolutionary organisation. This won’t appear from thin air. Nor will it be the product of pure theoretical arguments. It has to be created in the day to day work in strikes and demonstrations, alongside ordinary people.

Just as in 1917, a healthy revolutionary organisation today will include activists from different backgrounds; from socialist organisations, from trade unions, from religious or nationalist movements. What they will have in common is that they will reject the idea that nothing can change, or that we have to wait for someone else to do things for us. They might realise it or not, but they will be following the example of the people who struggled in 1917.

The ordinary workers and peasants of Russia showed us that a world without war and injustice is possible if we organise and fight for a revolution from below.


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