Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 10
The Russian Revolution

On 23 February 1917 celebrations of International Women’s Day began. This was the start of the revolution. Next day 200,000 workers went on strike in Petrograd. The day after, on the 25th, a general strike gripped the city and a number of strikers were killed by the army. Two days later there was a mutiny of the Guards regiments, soldiers refused to shoot at demonstrators, and in some cases, the officer ordering the shootings was killed by one of the soldiers. The Tsar abdicated. What is interesting is that just a day before the abdication of the Tsar a Soviet Of Workers’ Deputies was formed. The memory of the 1905 Soviet accelerated the event. All workplaces sent delegates to the Soviet.

The revolution was completely spontaneous and unplanned. As Trotsky correctly stated:

No one, positively no one – we can assert this categorically upon the basis of all the data – then thought that 23 February was to mark the beginning of a decisive drive against absolutism.

Sukhanov, a brilliant witness of the revolution, observes, “Not one party was preparing for the great upheaval.” Similarly a former director of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police, stated that the revolution was “a purely spontaneous phenomenon, and not at all the fruit of party agitation.” As millions of people came into political life for the first time, the Bolshevik Party appeared as very marginal, having, after the revolution, some 23,000 members. It was not until 25 February that the Bolsheviks came out with their first leaflet calling for a general strike-after 200,000 workers had already downed tools! In the elections to the soviet the Bolsheviks made up a tiny minority. Out of 1,500 to 1,600 delegates only 40, or 2.5 percent were Bolsheviks.

Dual power

Side by side with the Provisional Government, led by Prince L’vov, was the government of the soviets. There was, therefore, dual power.

Such a situation could not continue for any length of time. One of the two governments would have to give way.

To start with, the Soviet supported the L’vov government. At the session of the Soviet of 2 March, a resolution was put forward to transfer power to the Provisional Government, i.e. to the bourgeoisie. Only 15 deputies voted against it. This means that not even the 40 Bolsheviks opposed this. The mass pressure from some 1,600 deputies bent the Bolsheviks over. The parties dominating the Soviet, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, took a muddled position. They supported the soviets but also supported the bourgeois Provisional Government. They wanted peace but supported the war, They were sympathetic to the peasants’ demand for land but supported the government which was the spokesman of the landowners.

But a revolution does not allow a middle way compromise. Life posed every question in very extreme form.

The Bolshevik leadership in Russia were themselves extremely muddled. On 3 March the Petrograd Committee of the Bolshevik Party passed a resolution that it would “not oppose the power of the Provisional Government in so far as its activities correspond to the interests of the proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people.” The formula “in so far as” (postolka, posilku) appeared in the resolution of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet on relations with the Provisional Government, and became a way of referring to this particular policy of supporting the government.

Lenin in Switzerland was livid when he got a copy of Pravda that declared that the Bolsheviks would decisively support the Provisional Government “insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution” – forgetting that the only important agent of counter-revolution at the time was this same Provisional Government.

Lenin rearms the party

On 3 April 1917 Lenin arrived in Petrograd. When Lenin arrived at the Finland station the Bolshevik Party supported the victorious February Revolution. Lenin was contemptuous and raised the slogans, “Bread, peace and land”, and, “All power to the soviets.”

The revolutionaries of course tried to influence the masses, but it is not a one-way street. The views of the massive majority affect the revolutionaries. A few days later Lenin met the Petrograd committee of the Bolshevik Party. He argued the case for his April Theses. Out of 16 members present, two voted to support Lenin, 13 voted against, and one abstained.

In spite of this inauspicious beginning, Lenin was able to win a large proportion of the party to his stand in an astonishingly short tin This was the result both of Lenin’s consistency and the daily experience of millions. The war went on, thousands continued to die, the land lords still harshly exploited the peasants, the capitalists lived a life of luxury while the workers suffered from penury. It took something like a month for Lenin to win the party over.

To win the soviets to his viewpoint took a little longer. At the be ginning of September the Bolsheviks won a majority in the soviet of Petrograd and Trotsky became its president. At the same time the Bolsheviks won the soviet in Moscow, and the Bolshevik Kamenev became its president.

From this it was a short haul to the victory of the October Revolution.

While the February Revolution was spontaneous, the October Revolution was planned.

On 10 October the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party declared for an armed insurrection. Three days later the soldiers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet voted to transfer all military authority from headquarters to a Military Revolutionary Committee headed by Trotsky. On 16 October an enlarged plenum of the Central Committee, the Executive Commission of the Petrograd Committee, the Military Organisation, members of the Petrograd Soviet, trade unions, factory committees, the Petrograd Area Committee and the railwaymen reaffirmed the decision on the insurrection. On 20 October the Military Revolutionary Committee began actual preparations for the insurrection. On 25 October the insurrection took place. Trotsky organised this action brilliantly, as he did later when he led the Red Army to victory in the civil war.

Because the October Revolution was so well planned and executed hardly any blood was spilt. Far more people lost their lives in the February Revolution.

Following the revolution, during the civil war, many hundreds of thousands were killed. But this was not because of the action of the Soviet government, but because of the invasion of some 16 foreign Lenin rearms the party armies. To blame the Bolsheviks for this would be like blaming any person defending himself from a murderer for using violence.

Victorious revolution

Throughout the 20th century there were a number of proletarian revolutions. Alas, only one of them – the 1917 Russian Revolution – ended in victory. Again and again we witness half-carried revolutions, which confirm the prophetic words of St Just at the time of the French Revolution: “Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave.”

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was an exception to the series of half-made revolutions. The Bolshevik Party played a crucial role in the completion of the Russian Revolution.

The difference between success and failure, between Russia in October 1917 and the other workers’ revolutions, was that in the former case there was a mass revolutionary party providing effective leadership. While socialists cannot determine the moment when the revolutionary crisis breaks, they do determine the eventual outcome by the degree to which they build a strong revolutionary party.

“The working class, not the party, makes the revolution, but the party guides the working class,” Trotsky aptly wrote. “Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The land of the landowners was distributed to the peasants, the factories were taken into state ownership and were run under workers’ control, the oppressed nationalities got the right of self determination, and Russia that was a prison of nations became a federation of free and equal peoples.

For centuries anti-Semitism was rampant in Tsarist Russia. In 1881 500 pogroms were carried out against Jews. Jews were not allowed to live in the two capitals, Moscow and St Petrograd, unless they got special permission. Now the president of the soviet of Petrograd was a Jew, Trotsky, the president of the soviet of Moscow was a Jew, Kamenev, and the president of the Soviet Republic was a Jew, Sverdlov. When Trotsky moved to be the head of the Red Army he was re placed as president of the Petrograd Soviet by another Jew, Zinoviev.

The revolution was a festival of the oppressed. During 1917, during the month of the revolution Anatoly Lunacharsky, a brilliant speaker, held meetings of 30,000 to 40,000 people, and he would speak for two to three hours on subjects like William Shakespeare, Greek drama, etc. The population of London is four times greater than Petrograd at that time, and British workers are more literate than the Russians were. But in no way could one see a similar meeting held in London.

The Soviet government enacted the most progressive legislation in the world aiming at the emancipation of women: the right of divorce at the instigation of only one partner; free abortion on demand (the first in the world); communal feeding to free women from the kitchen; the communal upbringing of children. Also all laws against gays were got rid of.

Didn’t the Russian Revolution lead to Stalin and the gulag?

This argument is heard so many times by opponents of the revolution. And it sounds like common sense. Alas, it is the same common sense that could say: the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the product of Newton’s law of gravity. There is an element of truth: if not for the law of gravity the bomb would not fall down from the plane.

The key to understanding the rise of Stalin is in the international nature of the Russian Revolution.

The Russian Revolution was part of world revolution, and cannot be explained other than in terms of international factors. The Russian industrial working class was tiny: the number of workers in the factories, railways and mines was only three million out of a population of 160 million. The industrial output of Russia in 1917 was not greater than that of tiny Belgium. But the working class was much more concentrated in big units. Thus, for instance, there were 40,000 workers in the Putilov engineering factory; it was the largest factory in the world at the time. This was not the product of the gradual organic development of the Russian economy: it was overwhelmingly the result of foreign capital invested in Russia.

The aspirations of Russian workers were also shaped by international conditions. In Britain it took more than two centuries from the beginning of factory production to workers being imbued with the demand for the eight hour day. In Russia it became the central demand of the 1905 revolution.

Marxism was also not a native product of Russia. There was no Russian Adam Smith followed by a Russian David Ricardo followed by a Russian Karl Marx, Marxism came fully fledged into the intellectual-political life of Russia. Volume I of Capital was published first in 1867. It appeared in the Russian edition six years later, It was the first language into which Capital was translated. Finally, the last impetus for the Russian Revolution also came from abroad – the hammering by the German troops of the Russian army.

Lenin and Trotsky again and again warned that the Soviet regime would be doomed if the Revolution did not spread, above all if the German Revolution did not come to its aid. And so it came to be.

Stalin was not the heir of the Russian Revolution, but its gravedigger. The fact that he murdered every member of the Bolshevik Central Committee who survived the revolution and the civil war demonstrates this. The father of Stalinism was not Lenin but Noske, the right wing Social Democratic leader who was directly involved in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and in the murder of the German Revolution.

Tragically, the German Revolution was far less well organised or developed than the Russian. I remember meeting Heinrich Brandler, leader of the German Communist Party after the death of Rosa Luxemburg. I asked him what the state of Rosa Luxemburg’s organisation was in 1918. He said it had some 4,000 members, the majority of them not Marxists but pacifists (his words). Compare this to the Bolsheviks, who existed as a party since 1903, with a membership in 1917 of 23,600 – and this in a country where the working class was much smaller than in Germany. In a stream water remains clean. In stagnating water, scum comes to the top.

The isolation of the Russian Revolution led to the bureaucratic scum coming to the top. And when Stalin entered into competition with Western imperialism, he of necessity imitated it. If Nazi Germany had a massive industrial-military machine, Stalin wanted the same. To achieve this quickly, the only way was by harshly exploiting the Russian workers and peasants – hence the gulag. Stalinist Russia became more and more symmetrical to Nazi Germany. Its regime became state capitalist.


Last updated on 12.12.2002