The October Revolution: Workers Take Power

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The October Revolution: Workers Take Power

Lenin speaks to soldiers and others

Bolshevik Policy in the Countryside

The Bolsheviks were relatively weak in the countryside among the peasantry. They had always been in the cities; they spent most of their existence underground and going out into the country had been hard for them. They were mainly a workers’ party, but the peasants made up a huge majority of the population. The SRs (Socialist Revolutionaries) were the main party in the countryside. The relationship between the peasants (farmers and agricultural workers) to the workers in the cities was a key issue.

Based on an analysis, for a long time, the Bolsheviks distinguished between the rich peasants, called “kulaks” in Russian, the middle peasants, the poor peasants and agricultural laborers. The kulaks employed labor, exploited labor and owned large plots of land. The middle peasants owned land and basically had enough to live on. And the poor peasants, the majority, lived on plots of land inherited from feudalism that were too small to live on. They were constantly going under, starving to death, had their children starve and lived in destitute. Agricultural laborers were a growing sector in the countryside. They were poor peasants who had lost their land altogether and were really proletarians in the countryside. The Bolsheviks distinguished between these different layers and their strategy was to fight the kulaks, neutralize the middle strata, and win over the poor peasants and agricultural laborers.

Even though they were not supposed to be the peasant party, the Bolsheviks were the only ones who, all through the revolution, from the beginning, openly supported the peasants’ seizing the big estates without compensation. Even the SRs took a position against the land seizures, stating that they would have to wait until there is a constituent assembly, draw up the proper legislation and assure the land owners of how much they would be compensated. The Bolshevik stated that it was the right of the poor peasants to take the land, the big estates. But the SR leadership, while claiming to represent all the peasants, really represented the interests of the better off layers – the capitalist farmers and aspiring capitalist farmers.

Because of their policy, the Bolsheviks caused the SR party to split. The left wing of the SRs, which was more political, more leftist and more based on the poorer peasantry, split from the SRs. Eventually, the left SRs came together with the Bolsheviks for a period of time and formed a government after the October revolution.

Lenin understood the question of the peasantry partly from his own personal experiences. He grew up in an agricultural area and as a youth he interacted with peasants to understand their situation. Around 1890, when Lenin was about 20 years old, he met somebody with whom he had a major discussion, arguing over what life was like in the countryside. Before Lenin left for the university to attend law school, Lenin talked this person into going out and surveying 200 peasant families and writing him about it.

Farmers are small, or petit-bourgeois. Since they own their means of production, their consciousness tends to take them in a capitalist direction. Lenin understood, through his experience and studies, that the small and poor peasants, and of course the agricultural laborers, had no hope under capitalism. They could only be crushed, exploited and forced to lose their land. This was the Bolsheviks’ main orientation toward them.

As mentioned earlier, as a way of getting out of this life of 19-hour work days and abject poverty, Lenin called for setting up model farms. At the same time though, being realistic, he supported the breakup of the big plantations and the division of the land among the peasants who demanded it. If the revolution was to succeed in such a peasant-dominated country, there had to be an alliance between the workers and the poor peasants. Lenin’s line was to show that the future for the small peasants was with the workers and with socialism. That was really the only course the peasants had that offered hope.

In 1917, Lenin wrote, “for the past 20 years, there has run through the whole political history of Russia, like a red thread, the question of whether the working class is to lead the peasants forward to socialism, or whether the liberal bourgeoisie is to drag them back into a compromise with capitalism.”

Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?

On October 1, 1917, Lenin finished the pamphlet titled Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? Now, that is a very interesting title for a pamphlet written when the Bolsheviks have not seized state power yet. This was written about 25 days before the insurrection took place. But Lenin was confident that they would.

In the pamphlet, Lenin wrote that “all of the trends are agreed, from the liberal capitalists to the Mensheviks, that the Bolsheviks will either never dare take over full state power alone, or, if they do that, and do take power, they will not be able to retain it, even for the shortest while.” And then Lenin discussed some of the reasons for this perception. They said that the proletariat was too isolated from other classes, isolated from the real life forces of democracy. They said that it would not be able to lay hold of the state apparatus, that it would not be able to set the state apparatus in motion, that it was impractical for them to do so, and so on.

In addition to that we have a “magic way” to enlarge our state apparatus tenfold at once, at one stroke, a way which no capitalist state ever possessed or could possess. This magic way is to draw the working people, to draw the poor, into the daily work of state administration.

To explain how easy it will be to employ this magic way and how faultlessly it will operate, let us take the simplest and most striking example possible.

The state is to forcibly evict a certain family from a flat and move another in. This often happens in the capitalist state, and it will also happen in our proletarian or socialist state.

The capitalist state evicts a working-class family which has lost its breadwinner and cannot pay the rent. The bailiff appears with police, or militia, a whole squad of them. To effect an eviction in a working-class district, a whole detachment of Cossacks is required. Why? Because the bailiff and the militiaman refuse to go without a very strong military guard. They know that the scene of an eviction arouses such fury among the neighbors, among thousands and thousands of people who have been driven to the verge of desperation, arouses such hatred towards the capitalists and the capitalist state, that the bailiff and the squad of militiamen run the risk of being torn to pieces at any minute. Large military forces are required, several regiments must be brought into a big city, and the troops must come from some distant, outlying region so that the soldiers will not be familiar with the life of the urban poor, so that the soldiers will not be “infected” with socialism.

The proletarian state has to forcibly move a very poor family into a rich man’s flat. Let us suppose that our squad of workers’ militia is fifteen strong: two sailors, two soldiers, two class-conscious workers (of whom, let us suppose, only one is a member of our Party, or a sympathizer), one intellectual, and eight from the poor working people, of whom at least five must be women, domestic servants, unskilled laborers, and so forth. The squad arrives at the rich man’s flat, inspects it and finds that it consists of five rooms occupied by two men and two women–‘You must squeeze up a bit into two rooms this winter, citizens, and prepare two rooms for two families now living in cellars. Until the time when, with the aid of engineers (you are an engineer, aren’t you?), we have built good dwellings for everybody, you will have to squeeze up a little. Your telephone will serve ten families. This will save a hundred hours of work wasted on shopping, and so forth. Now in your family there are two unemployed persons who can perform light work: a citizeness fifty-five years of age and a citizen fourteen years of age. They will be on duty for three hours a day supervising the proper distribution of provisions for ten families and keeping the necessary account of this. The student citizen in our squad will now write out this slate order in two copies and you will be kind enough to give us a signed declaration that you will faithfully carry it out.’

This, in my opinion, shows, by means of striking examples, how the distinction between the old bourgeois and the new socialist state apparatus and state administration could be illustrated.

We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.

This is a fascinating approach. Lenin is addressing one of the objections to the Bolsheviks taking state power that it will not be able to administer the state because it does not have enough people. He is giving an idea of how the Bolsheviks can build up the state. But it is a very different idea of what the state is. The squad of 15 people is now part of the state. It is also interesting what Lenin writes about the exact makeup of this militia.

We have not yet seen, however, the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat, when tens of millions of people who have been crushed by want and capitalist slavery see from experience and feel that state power has passed into the hands of the oppressed classes, that the state is helping the poor to fight the landowners and capitalists, is breaking their resistance. Only then shall we see what untapped forces of resistance to the capitalists are latent among the people; only then will what Engels called “latent socialism” manifest itself. Only then, for every ten thousand overt and concealed enemies of working-class rule, manifesting themselves actively or by passive resistance, there will arise a million new fighters who have been politically dormant, suffering in the torments of poverty and despair, having ceased to believe that they are human, that they have the right to live, that they too can be served by the entire might of the modern centralized state, that their contingents of the proletarian militia can, with the fullest confidence, also be called upon to take a direct, immediate, daily part in state administration.

These lines were written a month before the October revolution took place. Lenin’s view is based, to a very large degree, on something that Lenin was committed to: that the poorest and most oppressed of the working class have this tremendous role to play in the future. What we see in this pamphlet is an expression of confidence in the proletariat. It shows not only Lenin’s tactical brilliance but also his thoroughly revolutionary view.

This orientation also explains why the Bolshevik majority in the soviets, when it came to pass, looked so different from when the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries had been the dominant force – this is also described by Trotsky in one of the chapters of The Russian Revolution.

Another argument against the seizure of power – and this was the view of almost everyone on the left, including the Bolsheviks – was that a socialist revolution could not be sustained in Russia without revolution taking place in the more economically developed countries of Europe. But Lenin and Trotsky believed that the Russian revolution could be the first, and could spark others. Whereas the more passive view, the Menshevik view, was that they just had to wait. Unfortunately, none of the other revolutions that followed, in Hungary, Germany, Slovakia and elsewhere, succeeded.

In early October, there was still vacillation and opposition within the Bolshevik leadership over the question of seizing power. The moderate socialists, the Mensheviks, and even their more left-wing elements, were totally opposed to it and were speaking out very openly against it. It is important to point out that this struggle between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks had gone on for 14 years, since 1903. The Mensheviks constantly wanted to push the liberal bourgeoisie forward as the leadership, to have them speak on behalf of the movement. From the very time of the split in the Russia Social Democratic Party, in 1903, the Mensheviks had said that it was the liberal bourgeoisie that must lead the next stage of the revolution into the bourgeois capitalist phase of Russia.

In the 1905 revolution, the Mensheviks had the same view. When the war came, they ended up supporting the liberal bourgeoisie, which was for the war. And in 1917, in the February revolution, all the way through, the Mensheviks kept saying that the bourgeoisie had to lead because this was the bourgeois phase of the revolution.

We see the same thing in the left in the United States too, where moderate socialists say: “Oh, we don’t want to have revolutionaries speak at rallies. Let’s just get the big names because we want to have broader actions.” But not to have the revolutionary line presented is to take a position of constantly relying on the liberal bourgeoisie or the radical middle-class elements.

The Bolsheviks proceeded with preparations for the insurrection, for their actual seizure of power. This process was going too slowly for Lenin, who was getting frustrated at a time when he was in his hiding place but maintaining constant communication. Lenin understood that if it were not seized, the revolutionary crisis would pass. A revolutionary opportunity comes into being, and if it is not taken, it goes away; it disappears.

Democratic Centralism

The bourgeoisie was seeking to regain its footing, to reassemble its forces in alliance with the monarchists and all kinds of reactionaries. The bourgeois forces had suffered a blow but they had not been totally defeated and they were going to come back. The Bolsheviks organized the Military Revolutionary Committee to carry out the practical preparations.

But in the days right before the insurrection, two of the top leaders of the party, Zinoviev and Kamenev, came out against the insurrection, not only within the party but publicly. They spoke out in other newspapers and this compromised and threatened the insurrection. It jeopardized the revolution. And this violated the Bolshevik organizational principle of democratic centralism; that is the party has to have internal discussions but when it has made its decision it has to act in a unitary way. This is what democratic centralism in a revolutionary party is made for: in the long run, the revolution. But nothing shows more clearly than a revolutionary situation that not having democratic centralism threatens even the possibility of a revolution. For example, if half the party says: “Well, no, we’ve made a decision, but we’re not into that so we’re not going to do it; and, moreover, we’re going to denounce it, in public, in the bourgeois press, before the revolution happens.”

When Zinoviev and Kamenev spoke out in this way, they were expelled, even though they had been long-time leaders from the very beginning of the Bolshevik Party. Later, after the Bolshevik revolution, they were readmitted to the Bolshevik Party after they acknowledged their mistake. They criticized themselves for what they had done. Zinoviev became the head of the Communist International and Kamenev and Zinoviev both became leading figures in the socialist governments that followed.

On Oct. 25 and 26, the insurrection, the seizure of power, took place. The revolution took place in Petrograd, Moscow and other cities. In Petrograd, the capital, the takeover was virtually bloodless. No more than a couple of people were killed. It was done with great efficiency and with tremendous support from the working class. They seized government buildings, the armories, the telephone and telegraph, the railway stations and the centers of communication and distribution.

In Moscow, there was more fighting. There was a battle with the military cadets, but very quickly the revolution began to spread. The following is a proclamation that was read on that day, October 25, in the Petrograd Soviet:

Comrades, the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, about the necessity of which the Bolsheviks have always spoken, has been accomplished.

What is the significance of this workers’ and peasants’ revolution? Its significance is, first of all, that we shall have a Soviet government, our own organ of power, in which the bourgeoisie will have no share whatsoever. The repressed masses will themselves create a power. The old state apparatus will be shattered to its foundations and a new administrative apparatus set up in the form of the Soviet organizations.

From now on, a new phase in the history of Russia begins, and this, the third Russian revolution, should in the end lead to the victory of socialism.

One of our urgent tasks is to put an immediate end to the war. It is clear to everyone that in order to end this war, which is closely bound up with the present capitalist system, capital itself must be fought.

We shall be helped in this by the world working-class movement, which is already beginning to develop in Italy, Britain and Germany.

The proposal we make to international democracy for a just and immediate peace will everywhere awaken an ardent response among the international proletarian masses. All the secret treaties must be immediately published in order to strengthen the confidence of the proletariat.

Within Russia, a huge section of the peasantry has said that they have played long enough with the capitalists and will now march with the workers. A single decree putting an end to landed proprietorship will win us the confidence of the peasants. The peasants will understand that the salvation of the peasantry lies only in an alliance with the workers. We shall institute genuine workers’ control over production.

We have now learned to make a concerted effort. The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organization, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.

We must now set about building a proletarian socialist state in Russia.

Long live the world socialist revolution!

Now the question, “Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?” became the key question. Now they had taken power and they were trying to spread this power through the country into different areas. But would they be able to hold onto it? Despite everyone predicting that this was going to be shorter than the Paris Commune, shorter than the 72 days that the Commune lasted, the Bolsheviks held on. Against unbelievable odds, against all of their enemies and opponents in the world, the Bolsheviks showed the world that they could hold state power. And for the first time in history, not only did the oppressed masses fought and died for a cause, not only did they fight and die for justice, but they took power in their own name. And they held onto it despite invasions by 14 imperialist armies and the mobilization of the whole anti-communist Russia – from the czarists to eventually the Mensheviks, who fought bitterly against them.

The left Social Revolutionaries, who split away from their party, were with the Bolsheviks for a period of time, but by August of the next year one of them attempted to assassinate Lenin. He shot Lenin in the head, which led to his early death in 1924. Some of them eventually joined the Bolshevik Party. From all of the parties on the left, the more revolutionary elements joined the Bolsheviks. But as parties, they continued in alliance with the bourgeoisie, into the civil war and the interventions that followed.

The Russian revolution could not have succeeded without the support that it received from the workers in other countries, despite the fact that revolutions were not successful in those countries. This support included uprisings against the countries that were intervening in the civil war – like the rebellion in the French navy. A lot of armies that were sent into Russia had rebellions, mutinies by the troops. And there were demonstrations of workers all over the world that supported the Russian revolution.

The Russian revolution, in turn, inspired millions around the world, not just in capitalist countries but also in the colonized world. And, in a way, the greatest thing that the Russian revolution showed was that imperialism could be defeated, that the imperialists could lose. And from that point of view, it is justified to say that up to that point the Russian revolution was the greatest event in human history.

It also showed that only this kind of a party that Lenin had built, the vanguard party, could lead a socialist revolution. What happened in Russia between 1903 and 1917 was a great testing ground. For all the different currents of the socialist movement, of the supposedly revolutionary movement, of the Marxist movement, only one emerged and was able to lead a revolution to victory – and that was the Bolshevik Party, a type of party that was different from all others.

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