Ted Grant

Russia 1917, Europe 1970s

Written: November 14, 1975
Markup: Emil 2006

November 7 was the 58th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Capitalist commentators and the Communist Parties of the world will try to blur its significance as the first step towards real democracy a workers' democracy and a preparation for a transition to socialism on an international scale.

The Russian Revolution can only be explained as part of the international socialist revolution. Trotsky points out in his History of the Russian Revolution that in 1917 (page 129, vol. 3) "in his articles and letters addressed to the Central Committee Lenin analyses the situation always emphasising first of all the international conditions. The symptoms and the facts of an awakening European proletariat are for him, on the background of the war, irrefutable proof that the direct threat against the Russian Revolution from the side of foreign imperialism will slowly diminish. Lenin wrote: "we stand in the vestibule of the world-wide proletarian revolution."

Trotsky writes: "against a strong, conservative, self-confident capitalistic Europe, the proletarian revolution in Russia, isolated and not yet fortified, could not have held out even for a few months. But that Europe no longer existed. The revolution in the West did not, to be sure, put the proletariat into power, but nevertheless proved powerful enough to defend the Soviet Republic in the first and most dangerous period of its life." (History of the Russian Revolution, page 129, vol. 3).

The reasons for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution on nationalist and totalitarian lines lay in the failures of the working class (because of the failure of the leadership of the Social Democratic Parties, to take advantage of the possibilities of overthrowing capitalism) and later in the reformist and nationalist degeneration of the Communist Parties. This led to the isolation of the revolution and with the then backwardness of Russia to the usurping of power by the millions of bureaucrats and officials who controlled industry, the army, the Communist Party, and the whole of the state machine.

They destroyed the beginnings of workers' democracy in the interests of maintaining a privileged position. But the basic conquests of the revolution still remain, state ownership of industry, communications and the land, the monopoly of foreign trade and planned production, instead of the chaos of the market economy. The convulsions of boom and slump are inevitable in the latter. The present slump of capitalism on a world scale, with the return of mass unemployment, begins a new and shorter cycle of production, from boom to slump and back again.

This will lead to powerful struggles and socialist revolutions in Europe and other continents. The fall of capitalist dictatorships in Greece and Portugal and the coming revolution in Spain [this was when the Franco dictatorship was about to collapse under the impact of mass working class mobilisation] are just a beginning of the process of socialist revolution which will sweep the capitalist nations in Europe and the world in the coming epoch.

But not there alone, in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the past period there have been uprisings or partial movements against the bureaucratic totalitarian dictatorships of Stalinism. As the capitalist press sadly admitted, in not a single case was there the desire to return to capitalism. But in however unclear a fashion there was the yearning for workers' democracy, on the basis of a planned economy. In Russia too, inequality, corruption, nepotism, insecurity, the tyranny of a police state, come more and more into conflict with the enormous increase in the means of production and a planned economy which could open up vistas of plenty on the basis of workers' democracy, with the running of industry and the state democratically by the working class. Consequently the inevitability of political revolution in the East as against social revolution in the West, in the coming period.

To put it in Marxist language, more and more, in the capitalist countries, the capitalist system is becoming a fetter on the development of production, while the bureaucratic Stalinist system also is becoming a relative fetter on production. Consequently a new epoch of socialist revolution in the West and political revolution in the East is opening up.

The French Communist Party leaders (reported in the 'Morning Star' [organ of the British Communist Party] without comment) have been forced by the protests of the Socialist Party, and the pressure of their own members, to protest against the incarceration in a psychiatric mental hospital of the dissident mathematician, Pluish. This within days of the 58th anniversary of the revolution is a crushing indictment of the successors of Stalin. They are using criminal methods of suppression against socialist oppositionists at a time when the capitalists internally in Russia have no basis and externally in relation to the working class, are weaker than ever before.

But the leaders of the Communist Party in Italy and France, and the Communist Party of Britain are making a purely liberal protest against repression in Russia, without putting forward a working class and Marxist point of view. They do not explain the roots and reasons for suppression in the lording over Russian society of the bureaucracy, and their defence of their privileged position. 58 years after the revolution, with a powerful economy, the second largest in the world, there is less democracy than in the first years of the revolution with a backward Russia involved in civil war and fighting against 21 foreign armies of intervention.

Class struggle

The revolution on the Iberian Peninsula in Portugal, and shortly too in Spain, at the other end of the European continent to Russia, is proof that the revolution was not purely a Russian phenomenon. And the developing situation in Italy today and the whole of Western Europe, which will produce revolutionary crises, is a crushing condemnation of the positions of the Communist Parties.

Abandoning the method of Lenin they have taken up the position of Menshevism at the time of the Russian Revolution. Of course there will not be a carbon copy, exactly of the Russian Revolution. Traditions and conditions are different. But the basic laws of the class struggle remain the same in all capitalist countries.

The Portuguese Revolution, at one and the same time shows the irresistible power of the working class when it is determined to change society, and abolish the workings of capitalism in the present period nationally and internationally. It has also shown the vital need for the workers' movement to be guided by the ideas of Marxism.

If a comparison is made between the Russian and Portuguese Revolutions it is clear that in real power the Portuguese working class, in proportion to the population of the country, is much stronger. The industrial working class is 33% as against 10% in Russia in 1917. International capital has been paralysed by the development of the colonial revolution. Even mighty American imperialism cannot intervene directly by armed force because of the disastrous defeat of the intervention against the Vietnamese Revolution.

The impulsion of the revolution has been stronger in Portugal after liberation from 50 years of fascist dictatorship. The elemental movement of the masses was even greater after the fall of Caetano than at the beginning of the Russian Revolution after the fall of the Czar. The Portuguese army, from top to bottom as a counter-revolutionary force, disintegrated far more than the Russian army. The officer caste in Russia remained loyal to reaction, while in Portugal the majority have gone over to (perhaps woolly) ideas of socialism. The workers in Portugal, as in Russia, have been determined to end the old society. Yet in Russia under far more difficult conditions, with the war with Germany on the Eastern front, the revolution was completed in 9 months and ended with workers' power. In Portugal it has not been completed in 19 months.

Bolshevik Party

In the Russian Revolution it was the tactics and policy of the Marxists in the Bolshevik Party that directed and harnessed the revolutionary energy of the working class and this laid the foundations of victory. In Portugal it has been the policies of the Socialist Party and Communist Party leaders, with the irresponsibility of the ultra-left sects, mainly Maoist, which have meant enormous dangers for the Portuguese Revolution. In fact, most of the steps forward of the Portuguese Revolution, have been taken as a consequence of the reaction of the masses to the attempts of the counterrevolution to restore the power of capitalism and landlordism.

The Russian Revolution began as a bourgeois-democratic or capitalist revolution. But the tactics of Lenin were irreconcilably opposed to those of Berlinguer [leader of the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s] or of the British Communist Party leaders who have made a coalition with Liberal and Conservative capitalist politicians during the Common Market campaign [there was a referendum on whether Britain should have joined the European Economic Community, as the European Union was then known]. No the workers were to unite with the peasants to overthrow Czarism, and prepare the way for the Democratic Republic. The workers can rely only on their own power, unity and strength of purpose. No reliance on perfidious capitalists. The Mensheviks put their trust in agreements with capitalist liberals, as Berlinguer and the Italian Communist Party are trying to make an agreement with the Christian Democratic Party, a party to the right of the Conservative Party in Britain!

Limited reforms

Trotsky and Lenin after the February Revolution explained that the bankers and industrialists were linked to the semi-feudal landlords and that they would not be prepared to allow their expropriation because of the 4,000 million roubles owed by the landlords to the bankers. The landlords had investments in industry and vice-versa, both classes were linked to the Monarchy, and used Czarism as a means of fooling and disciplining the masses.

During the First World War, the capitalists wanted the Monarchy to concede limited democratic reforms, while retaining the overall power. In the same way the Spanish capitalists wanted Franco in the recent period to transfer power to Juan Carlos with limited democratic reforms.

Whichever way the Spanish capitalists decide to go, either in further right wing repression or partial concessions under the King Juan Carlos, the Spanish capitalists are facing different roads to ruin. But the Spanish Communist Party leaders have adopted policies and principles to the right of the Russian Mensheviks during the Russian Revolution.

Had the Czar given concessions in Russia in 1916, events would have developed differently in the first period of the revolution, but not fundamentally. This is shown by the way the Spanish Revolution progressed in 1931, after the dismissal of the Bonapartist dictator Primo de Rivera ending in the abdication of the King (the grandfather of Juan Carlos) and the unfolding of the Spanish Revolution. This ended in bloody defeat because of the class collaboration policies of the Socialist and Communist parties and the victory of fascism over 40 years. Berlinguer, the Western European Communist Parties, and the leaders of the Spanish and Socialist and Communist Parties have learned nothing from this, nor from the rich experience of the Russian Revolution.

The February Revolution crushed Czarism, and as in Spain of 1936 or Portugal after Spinola's attempted coup, the real power rested firmly in the hands of the workers and soldiers. The Soviets in Russia were committees like those of the shop stewards in Britain and were formed in the workshops, and armed forces, elected democratically by the workers and soldiers, linked together in areas, regionally and nationally.

The February Revolution began on the 23rd with a strike not of the most advanced, the heavy industrial workers or the engineers, but of the most oppressed, the women textile workers in Petrograd, on International Women's Day. Among them were many soldiers' wives. 90,000 were on strike. On the following day half the industrial workers of Petrograd joined the strike. "Down with autocracy, Down with the war" were the slogans of demonstrating workers in the city centre.

The police tried to break up the crowds aided by the Cossacks (cavalry troops), some mounted police, and occasionally by infantry. The crowds fought the police, but tried to neutralise the Cossacks and win over the soldiers in action.

On February 25, the order to fire to disperse the crowds was given to the troops. Certain training squadrons for officers fired on the demonstrating workers. On the 27th there were more demonstrations. The troops were called out to suppress them. After clashes with the workers, mainly by officer training squadrons, the troops began to mutiny. In some places the workers had succeeded in uniting with the soldiers, penetrating the barracks and receiving rifles and cartridges.

The one thousand-year-old Monarchy fell under these hammer blows. So in the Spanish Revolution in 1936, the unarmed workers storming the barracks in Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid, were joined by some soldiers and the real power, "armed bodies of men", was in the hands of the workers. But in Spain, the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties, with he help of the Anarchists played the role of the Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, and handed power back to the capitalist class. Without Marxist leadership this resulted in the defeat and destruction of the revolution.

In Russia the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries handed power to the capitalists in the form of the Liberal Party, the Constitutional Democrats in the early months of the revolution. With Lenin in Switzerland, the leaders of the Bolsheviks in Russia put forward a policy like that of the Popular Front put forward by the Communist Party today. Stalin came out for a union in one party of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, i.e. of Marxists and opportunists. He said, "...we will live down petty(!) disagreements within the Party."

Lenin presented his views to the Bolshevik Party Conference on April 4th: "...why didn't you seize the power? ...the reason is that the proletariat was not sufficiently conscious and not sufficiently organised... The material force was in the hands of the proletariat, but the bourgeoisie was conscious and ready... it is necessary... to say to the people straight out that we did not seize the power because we were unorganised and not conscious."

Lenin went on to explain, "We are not charlatans... we must base ourselves only upon the consciousness of the masses. Even if it is necessary to remain in a minority, so be it... The real government is the Soviet of Workers' Deputies... in the Soviet our party is the minority... what can we do? All we can do is to explain patiently, insistently, systematically, the error of their tactics... We do not want the masses to believe us just on our say so; we are not charlatans… We want the masses to be freed by experience from their mistakes."

Lenin gained the overwhelming support of the rank and file for his tactics. The Bolsheviks had grown from 8,000 after the February Revolution to 79,000 at the beginning of April. Now they were endeavouring to win the support of the big majority of the working class for their policies of "All power to the Soviets." At that time the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries retained the support of the crushing number of the workers' and soldiers' delegates.

In April as a consequence of the annexationist aims proclaimed by the Russian Liberal Foreign Minister Miliukov, there was an indignant demonstration of certain regiments in Petrograd, which was supported by strikes, with many workers joining in. "Among the bayonets of the soldiers glimmered the letters on a streamer 'Down with Miliukov'."

Thus the coalition with the capitalists aroused the opposition of sections of the advanced workers from the earliest days of the revolution. However the first Congress of the Soviets assembling on June 3, in Petrograd, sanctioned an offensive ordered by Kerensky on the war fronts. There were 820 delegates with a vote and 268 with a voice. Out of 777 delivering party affiliations, 285 were Social Revolutionaries, 246 Mensheviks, 105 Bolsheviks.

Trotsky observed, "The Congress refused to press a decree on the 8-hour day. Tseretelli (a Menshevik leader) explained this sidestepping by the difficulty of reconciling the interests of different layers of the population. As though any single great need in history was ever accomplished by 'reconciling interests' and not by the victory of progressive interests over reactionary!" (History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, page 408).

In a demonstration on June 18, called by the Executive Committee of the Soviets in Petrograd. 400,000, mainly workers and soldiers, participated. The banners of the workers carried the Bolshevik slogans "Down with the 10 capitalist ministers", "Down with the offensive" and "All power to the Soviets."

July Days

Thus the Bolsheviks were increasing their influence among the masses. But the privations of the war, the increase of prices and the bloody and useless offensive organised by the Kerensky Government in the war undermined support for the 'Compromisers', Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. The Petrograd workers and soldiers were reacting to the betrayal by the Provisional Government of the ideals of the revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks appealed to the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, where the Bolsheviks now had a majority, to wait for action until they had won a majority in the country. On June 31 Lenin wrote in 'Pravda', "We understand your bitterness, we understand the excitement of the Petersburg workers, but we say to them: Comrades, an immediate attack would be inexpedient."

But the indignation of the workers and soldiers could not be restrained, despite the advice of the Bolshevik leaders. Consequently on July 3 a demonstration, which is referred to historically as the `July Days', was organised by the soldiers and supported by the workers. Trotsky quotes one of the participants, "Under the red banners marched only workers and soldiers," "The cockades of the officials, the shiny buttons of students, the hats of 'lady sympathisers' were not to be seen... today only the common slaves of capital were marching."

Izvestia the official Soviet paper reported, "The troops elected a deputation to the all-Russian Council Executive Committee which presented in their name the following demands: Removal of the 10 bourgeois Ministers; all power to the Soviets; cessation of the offensive; confiscation of the printing plants of the bourgeois press; the land to be state property; state control of production."

The demonstrators were fired on by officers, police agents and provocateurs from cellars and roofs of houses. They were trying to provoke clashes, so as to drown in blood the armed demonstration of Petrograd workers and soldiers. The Government brought back troops from the front to "put down an uprising," although it was clear that it was intended as a peaceful demonstration. The right wing leaders saw this as an opportunity to take action against the Bolsheviks. 500,000 people had participated in the demonstration.

The theoretical explanation of the July Days is given by Trotsky when he says, "At the July forking of historic roads, the interference of the Bolshevik Party eliminated both fatally dangerous variants - both that of the likeness of the June days of 1848 and that of the Paris Commune of 1871. Thanks to the party's taking its place boldly at the head of the movement, it was able to stop the masses at the moment that the demonstration began to turn into an armed test of strength. The blow struck at the masses and the party in July was very considerable, but it was not a decisive blow. The victims were counted by tens and not by tens of thousands. The working class issued from the trial, not headless and not bled to death. It fully preserved its fighting cadres and these cadres had learned much." (History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 2, page 94).

The temporary eclipse of the Bolsheviks with the hysterical campaign of slander encouraged and strengthened the forces of counter-revolution. The landlords and capitalists could not reconcile themselves to the immense power possessed by the Soviets even under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The Provisional Government had only a very partial power. It was under the constant pressure of the Soviets even under a compromise leadership. In Russia on August 28, General Kornilov, liberally supplied with funds by the imperialists and after conspiring with Kerensky, broke with the latter and deployed troops against Petrograd.

Lenin had had to go into hiding. Trotsky had been arrested. Yet immediately the open counter-revolution reared its head, the Bolsheviks offered a united front, to their persecutors, against the danger of open counterrevolution.

The Bolsheviks helped to organise committees for the defence of the revolution. Trotsky says, "The picture of political forces traced by the headquarters' diplomat, Prince Trubetskoy, was correct in many things, but mistaken in one. Of that indifference of the people, which made them ready to submit to the least blow of the whip, there was not a trace. On the contrary, the masses were as if awaiting a blow of the whip in order to show what sources of energy and self-sacrifice were to be found in their depths. This mistake in estimating the mood of the masses brought all their other calculations to the dust."

"Under direct pressure from the Bolsheviks and the organisations led by them, the committee of defence recognised the desirability of arming individual groups of workers for the defence of the workers' quarters, the shops and factories... The Red Guard announced its readiness to put in the field a force of 40,000 rifles." (ibid., vol. 2, page 233).

The troops of Kornilov, like the paratroops and commandos of Spinola in Portugal, refused to take action against Petrograd. They were won over by delegates and agitators of the Soviets. "The soldiers of Kornilov never even made the attempt to employ weapons to force their way to Petrograd. The officers did not once give them the command. The Government troops were nowhere obliged to resort to force in stopping the onslaught of the Kornilov army. The conspiracy disintegrated, crumbled, evaporated in the air." (ibid., vol. 21, page 229)

With the collapse of the attempted counter-revolution, the Government decided to try to transfer the revolutionary troops in Petrograd to the front. Trotsky writes "as soon as the order for the removal of the troops was communicated by headquarters to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet... it became clear that this question in its development would have decisive political significance." (ibid., Vol. 3, page 73).

On October 9 the Compromisers introduced into the Petrograd Soviet a motion to create a committee of revolutionary defence "of the capital, in co-operation with the workers, from the German army. This committee was accepted by the Bolsheviks and then re-named the 'Military Revolutionary Committee'." This provided legal cover for preparations to seize power. The Bolsheviks conducted a mass agitation among the soldiers and workers preparing them for the conquest of power. At a meeting on October 21 "upon the proposal of Trotsky, the [garrison] conference adopted 3 short resolutions: (1) The garrison of Petrograd and, its environs promises the Military Revolutionary Committee full support in all its steps... (2) October 22nd is to be a day devoted to a peaceful review of forces... (3) The All-Russian Congress of Soviets must take the power in its hands and guarantee to the people peace, land and bread." Hundreds of delegates voted for this; only 57 abstained. There was not a single delegate who voted against!

Step by step, the arsenals, the fortresses, the garrison, through the workers and soldiers of these garrisons and enterprises, came under the control of the MRC. Power was more and more being taken into the hands of the committee. As Trotsky ironically remarks, "It was being left to the Government of Kerensky as one might say to insurrect." (ibid., vol. 3, page 122).

In preparing for the insurrection besides the factories, barracks, villages, the front and the Soviets, the revolution had another laboratory: the brain of Lenin. The approach of a decisive struggle led to waverings in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev surreptitiously supported by Stalin, were opposed to the insurrection. But as Lenin explained, "The success of the Russian and World Revolution depends upon a two or three day struggle."


A revolutionary situation can be decades in preparation, but if the revolutionary leadership fails to take advantage of it, the masses can grow disillusioned and indifferent. The possibility is lost and it may be another decade or two before a similar opportunity will recur. As Engels explains, 25 years can be as a day and then in one day can be summed up the essence of 25 years.

Lenin was in hiding and without the full facts he adopted a somewhat 'ultra-left' position on the date and method of the seizure of power. He wrote that this should be done under the banner of the Bolshevik Party, rather than that of the Soviets. But there were large sections of workers, and especially the soldiers, who would obey the summons of the Soviet as the mass expression of the workers' and peasants' organisations, rather than that of the Bolshevik Party. Consequently Trotsky leading the Military Revolutionary Committee, step by step organised the conquest of power. The National Congress of Soviets was to assemble on October 25 (November 7, in the Western calendar) in which the Bolsheviks had a majority. But it was necessary to assure the taking of power in advance in order to prevent the smothering of the revolution.


At the Congress of the Soviets in answer to the Mensheviks Trotsky declared, "If the real forces were actually against us, how could it happen that we won the victory almost without bloodshed. No, it is not we who are isolated, but the government and the so-called democrats... our great superiority as a party was in the fact that we have created a coalition with the class forces, creating a union of one of workers, soldiers and poorest peasants."

The masses seized power firmly. "Who would believe," wrote one of the Russian Generals, Zalessky, expressing his indignation at this, "that the janitor or watchman of the court building would suddenly become chief justice of the court of appeals? Or the hospital orderly manager of the hospital, the barber a big functionary; yesterday's ensign the commander-in-chief; yesterday's lackey or common labourer burgomaster; yesterday's train oiler chief of division or station superintendent; yesterday's locksmith head of the factory?" (ibid., vol. 3, page 341).

Commenting on the significance of the revolution Trotsky writes "the historic ascent of humanity taken as a whole may be summarised as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces in nature, in society, in man himself. Criticism and creative thought can boast of its greatest victories up to now in the struggle with nature. The physico-chemical sciences have already reached a point where man is clearly about to become master of matter. But social relations still form in the manner of the coral island. Parliamentarism illumined only the surface of society and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with Monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October Revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned" (ibid., vol. 3, page 341).