Rise of the working class

10. Russian Revolution: the rise

Ted Tripp

Source: Labor College lecture
First published: Labor College Review, November 1986
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

A socialist revolution in a backward country?

With the 1905 revolution there began an extended period of working class revolutionary upheaval around the world, including parts of the colonial world. Important problems for the application of Marxism arose because the Russian Revolution occurred in a backward country barely emerged from serfdom, where industrial capitalist development was not preceded by a bourgeois revolution or centuries of gradual capitalist development.

Marx himself had argued that what enabled socialism (ie workers’ control of production and the state, full political democracy, full equality) was the development of the productive forces to a sufficient degree to provide plenty for all the first time in human history.

Without this affluence any attempt to establish socialism must fail because to quote Marx, “without it only want is made general and with want, the struggle for necessities and all the old crap would necessarily be reproduced”.

Why, then, did revolution break out in Russia, and why was it a working class revolution?

Russian society

Russia was a backward country and yet at the same time it was part of the world economy — only one part of the capitalist world system. Lenin used the formulation: “the chain broke at its weakest link”.

The Great War of 1914-18 drew in a variety of countries at different stages of development, but demanded of them all the same level of participation. The more backward the country, the greater the burden of the war on that country’s economy. Russia was the first to leave the military field, but for that to happen a dislocation of the Russian class structure had to occur.

Apart from the war, the more advanced the general forces of production, the tenser the competition on the world market, the sharper the antagonisms, the madder the race for armaments, the harder it became for the weaker participants. This is why the backward countries were first to collapse.

The war alone was not responsible for the revolution, for even in times of peace, Russian society would have fallen victim of the same contradictions that exploded in 1917.

That explains why the tsarist state suffered shipwreck, but not why a socialist revolution should succeed in a backward country.

The breakdown of old feudal Russia should have led to a bourgeois revolution as in France 1789, rather than to a socialist state.

But, the development of nations does not repeat itself mechanically. One faction of the Russian revolutionary movement, the Mensheviks, argued that capitalism inevitably followed feudalism, so the bourgeois must be the new ruling class after the fall of the tsarist aristocracy.

From this they argued that the task of the revolutionary socialist and the working class was to encourage the bourgeoisie to seize power. This position led the Mensheviks to support the bourgeoisie even in opposition to the working class.

A second view, held by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party (until April 1917), was that the bourgeoisie would not seize the power from the Tsarist aristocracy but the workers and peasants would have to do the job for them. That is, a worker-peasant dictatorship would establish capitalism and complete the bourgeois democratic revolution, thus creating conditions for the workers’ revolution at a later date. Trotsky alone held that the revolution would have to be led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry and that it would have to proceed to the creation of a workers’ state.

To repeat ourselves, history does not mechanically repeat itself, as different stages of civilisation overlap and intermingle with one another in the life of one and the same country.

In other words there is a reciprocal influencing of backward and progressive countries, there is in the case of Russia the pressure of the progressive countries on this extremely backward one. The backward countries must catch up with the progressive ones by borrowing their technology and science.

This produces a development that is both combined and uneven.

At the beginning of the 20th century, industry occupied a small place in Russia compared with agriculture. The city bowed to the country, the worker bowed to the peasant. Overall, this meant a low national productivity of labour. In 1914, Russia’s productivity rate was eight to ten times lower than that of the United States.

In what exactly did this combined development consist? Almost without highways, Russia began to build railways. Without having gone through the European artisan and manufacturing stage of development, Russia passed directly to mechanised production. To leap over the intermediate stages is the way of backward countries.

While peasant agriculture often remained at the level of the 17th century, Russian industry, at least in its type if not scope, reached the technical level of the progressive countries.

For example, gigantic enterprises with more than 100 workers each, employed in the United States less than 18 per cent of the industrial workers, whereas in Russia it was more than 41 per cent.

This is not to suggest that Russia was not backward, but it does show the dialectical components that could produce a socialist revolution in Russia.

This same contradictory character was seen in the class structure of Russia. Faced with the necessity of keeping pace with the West, the tsarist government encouraged foreign investment, and the finance capital of Europe industrialised the Russian economy at a rapid rate from 1880 on. The Russian bourgeoisie, which depended on the Russian state and on foreign capital, particularly British and French, was in no position to initiate a struggle against absolutism and the landed aristocracy. Such industry as existed assumed a large-scale and anti-popular character. The foreign stockholders lived outside the country.

The workers, on the other hand, were Russian. Against a numerically weak Russian bourgeoisie with no national roots, there stood confronting it a relatively strong and concentrated proletariat with strong roots among the people and a high level of class consciousness. The workers had not had years of parliamentary rule and conservative Social Democracy to spread social and political conservatism. By the late 1890s, mass strikes both political and economic were taking place and revolutionary parties were in the process of formation.

Nevertheless, the young and energetic working class still constituted a minority of the nation, (about 25-30 per cent). The peasants were about 70 per cent of the people. The reserves of the revolution were in the peasantry, still living in semi-serfdom. This was the subsoil of the revolution, for the old feudal system became doubly intolerable under the conditions of the new capitalist exploitation.

The peasants’ communal areas amounted to 196 million acres. Yet, 30,000 large landowners (average 2800 acres), owned a total of 9.8 million acres — as much as the holdings of 10 million peasants.

However, a peasant revolt is one of the elements of a bourgeois revolution, and not at all of a proletarian revolution. The peasantry was a class that did not oppose private ownership of the means of production but sought it against the large landowners.

This was so in the past, but peasant revolts, particularly after August 1917, did not drive the bourgeoisie forward, as in France in 1789, but backwards into the hands of reaction, relying as it did on the Russian state and foreign landholders.

The peasants, backward and ignorant, isolated from the centres of power, production and culture, turned to the workers. Had the bourgeoisie been able to meet the peasants’ demands, the workers would not have been able to achieve power in 1917.

But the Russian bourgeoisie, a cowardly Johnny-come-lately, dared not lift a hand against feudal property. The power to change society thereby became the priority of the workers.

For organs of mass democracy — the Soviets, or workers’ councils — to develop, it was necessary for two different historical factors to come into existence and to work together. These were a peasant war — a movement characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development — and a revolt of the working class, whose development announced the decline of bourgeois society.

These were the sources of the combined character of the Russian revolution. The peasantry, although in revolt, were unable because of their social situation to give conscious expression to their indignation. They needed leadership and found it in the proletariat.

The second great reserve of the workers was the oppressed nationalities, which were largely peasants. The tsarist state had grown enormously in the east, subjugating the very backward areas and basing itself on them in order to stifle the more developed nationalities of the west.

To the Great Russians (some 70 million), were added some 90 million of other races. The ruling nationality in Russia was only 43 per cent of the population, while the 57 per cent who made up the various nationalities faced varying levels of legal and economic deprivation.

The Russian liberal, as seen in men such as Alexander Kerensky, on agrarian and peasant questions was not willing to go beyond a certain amelioration of the regime of oppression and violence. The democratic government of Pavel Milyukov and Kerensky, reflecting the interests of the Russian bourgeoisie and bureaucracy, hastened to impress on the nationalities the firm idea that it would obtain what it wanted only by force.

The Bolshevik pledge of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities won their confidence, although their rights were later violated by the Stalinist regime.

The oppressed nationalities, like the Russian peasants, turned against the official democrats (the bourgeois, liberal and social democrats), strengthened the proletariat and poured into the stream of the October upheaval.

Prior to the 20th century, there was a variety of approaches among revolutionaries as to the need to destroy the tsarist regime. The populists, who later split into two wings, the Lavarists and People’s Will, believed that Russia would not pass through a capitalist stage, as did Western Europe, but that socialism could be reached through organisation of the peasantry.

They relied on political terror and assassination against the tsarist forces. Lenin, in his Development of capitalism in Russia, (1897) proved beyond doubt that Russia would pass through the capitalist stage and would not be different to Europe. Accordingly, said Lenin, to dismiss the industrial growth of the 1880s and 1890s would be a disastrous mistake that ignored the rapid growth of the working class, which had power far beyond its size.

At the commencement of the 20th century, the Social Democratic Party of Russia was founded and at its second congress, held in London (1903), at which various groupings were represented, a split took place that was later to assume great historical significance. The break took place on the question of who could become a member of the Social Democratic Party.

Lenin maintained that only those devoting their lives to the revolutionary movement, who would look on their work as a profession subject to discipline from a central body — “professional revolutionaries” — were entitled to membership.

Equally eminent Marxists on the other side considered that membership should be open to all who professed belief in the labour movement. When the vote was taken, Lenin had the majority and as the minority refused to accept the decision, the conference split into two sections, Lenin’s group being termed Bolshevik (similar to the Russian word majority) and Plekhanov’s group Menshevik (similar to the Russian word minority).

We should note that Lenin’s concept of the party was quite different from the monolithic bureaucratic instrument of control that developed later under the Stalinist bureaucracy. Self-criticism and internal democracy were part of the vital internal life of the party. When the party later divided on the question of the October 1917 insurrection, men who opposed the insurrection, such as Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, were not only not expelled but were elected to the central committee of the party.

Even Lenin on several occasions found himself in a minority. The operating basis of Lenin’s party was democratic centralism, which combined the fullest internal freedom to discuss with complete unity of action. Party life was based on it being part of the working class, organised separately but having no interests outside the needs of the class and the class struggle.

The 1905 revolution

In 1904 Russia declared war on Japan and by August 1905 was forced to sign peace terms as a beaten power. The war revealed all the rottenness of the feudal autocracy.

Before the war’s end, the country bordered on revolution, the bourgeoisie putting forward demands for a limited monarchy and a legislative assembly. Soviets, or councils of workers’ and peasants’ deputies, were set up for the first time. The Social Democrats, Marxists, worked through the Soviets for support of the demands of the bourgeoisie, at the same time recognising that should the bourgeoisie be called on to complete their revolution they would undoubtedly repeat history by going over to the side of counter-revolution.

The Social Democrats hoped, through the Soviets, to carry the revolution to its finality and so pave the way for the victory of the workers. On the other hand, the Social Revolutionaries, based on the peasantry, refused to recognise the necessity for a bourgeois society. Besides mass propaganda against the government, they resorted to revolutionary terrorism.

The forces against tsarism in 1905 were not strong enough to depose it. The tsarist government limped on until caught up in World War I in 1914. Lenin said:

For a revolution to take place it is not enough that the lower orders do not wish to live in the old way, it is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to live in the old way. (May Day action by the revolutionary proletariat)

By early 1917 these conditions had been met in Russia. The tsar had entered into a system of military alliances with the “democratic republican” government of the French empire and the “constitutional monarchy” of the British empire against the German and Austrian empires. Inevitably, this alliance, and its counterpart on the German-Austrian-Turkish side, led to war.

The war that started in August 1914 was, in Lenin’s words, “a bourgeois imperialist and dynastic war. A struggle for markets and for freedom to beat foreign countries … a war to deceive, disunite and slaughter the working peoples of all countries by setting the wage slaves of one nation against those of another so as to benefit the capitalist bosses….

It was also a war that made unprecedented demands on the economies of the warring countries. The Russian economy was too weak to bear the burden.

The lack of munitions, the small number of factories for their production, the sparseness of railway lines … soon translated the backwardness of Russia into the familiar language of defeat … About fifteen million men were mobilised … About five and a half million were counted as killed, wounded or captured … approximately two and a half million were killed. (History of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, chapter 2)

In the cities food shortages, shortage of clothing, of fuel, of all the necessities of life, grew worse and worse — for the poor. The rich, glutted with war profits, feasted while cold, hungry workers slaved away for 10, 12 or 14 hours a day.

The February Revolution

In the factories and the army, the influence of the illegal socialist organisations, mainly Bolsheviks, began to grow rapidly. Yet even they did not yet understand how rotten the regime had become, how easily it could be overthrown. The initiative came from the women textile workers of Petrograd.

February 23, 1917, was International Women’s Day. “The social-democratic circles had intended … meetings, speeches, leaflets,” recorded Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution (volume I, chapter 7).

“It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day.”

The women demanded bread from the authorities, which was “like demanding milk from a he-goat’, wrote Trotsky. The Bolsheviks, expecting a quick defeat, reluctantly led the metalworkers out on strike. On February 23, 1917, more than 90,000 workers went on strike.

There was no violence, as the tsarist officials were afraid that the infantry would not obey orders to shoot the workers, for by early 1917 the tsarist army was almost as disaffected as the workers. By the third day a quarter of a million workers were on the streets.

The soldiers were coming over to the workers and on February 29, the tsar abdicated.

But who was in power? The workers of Petrograd and the soldiers of the garrison had made the revolution. A Petrograd Soviet of Workers Deputies sprang up at once and soon worker soviets, soldier soviets, and later peasant soviets, emerged all over Russia. In the first days after the fall of the tsar, effective power was in the hands of the soviets, but the leadership of all the important soviets was predominantly in the hands of Mensheviks and representatives of the peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries.

For them, the object of the revolution was a democratic capitalist republic. Russia, they said, was not ripe for socialism. As the workers’ representatives were in fact in power, they must hand back power to the liberal representatives of capitalism.

A provisional government was patched together from members of the Duma, a fake parliament set up after 1905. The government had no other real support, but for the time being this was enough. The provisional government was headed by a tsarist nobleman, Prince Lvov.

The bourgeois liberals were concerned to restore order in the army and the factories and even to restore the tsar, although not the discredited Nicholas. They also stood for the continuation of war as well as the submission of Poles, Finns, Baltic and Central Asian peoples to the rule of Mother Russia. There was talk of limited home rule for these peoples, but as with much of the provisionial government’s talk and that of its “socialist” supporters, it was a question of waiting for elections to a Constituent Assembly. When would it be elected? Later on.

The Mensheviks increasingly adopted provisional government policies. Lenin and Trotsky were in exile and Stalin, the editor of Pravda wrote in March that the Bolshevik attitude was: “Our slogan must be to bring pressure to bear on the provisional government in order to compel them to make peace.”

Lenin, in Letters from Afar, rebuked this, stating: “To urge that government to conclude a democratic peace is like preaching virtue to brothel keepers.”

The road to October

In April 1917 Lenin arrived in Russia and in a speech he declared: “No support whatever to the provisional government.”

Lenin argued at a Bolshevik conference for overthrowing the provisional government, all power to the Soviets, a revolutionary peace policy, socialist construction at home and international revolution abroad. Inside the Bolsheviks, a majority opposed Lenin, arguing for pressure on the provisional government to compel it to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution.

Lenin threatened to leave the party if his view was not supported, and that won the day. Lenin’s view was a change from his earlier stance and was a move nearer to views advanced by Trotsky in his work, The Permanent Revolution published in 1905-07.

The question of every revolution is state power but what developed in this revolution was a situation of dual power. To quote Lenin:

Alongside the provisional government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing — the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies … It is a revolutionary dictatorship, ie, a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power … This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. (The dual power, Pravda, April 9, 1917)

The Soviets were capable of running production, transport and communications and they represented the real power that could replace the entire capitalist state machinery, but they were dominated by the Mensheviks (ie Social Democrats) who stood for a capitalist republic and whose policies would therefore eventually mean the end of soviets.

The provisional government told the British and French governments that it would not make a separate peace, provoking mass demonstrations of more than 30,000 soldiers. Only the “socialist” leaders of the soviet were able to persuade the soldiers to disperse, and the government begged the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaders to join the cabinet, as they had influence over the workers. This they did, and Social Revolutionary man Kerensky, as minister of war, was the main driving force of the government. At first Kerensky launched a successful offensive against the Germans, but it was doomed. The miserable armies continued to starve and die while all over the country the railways were breaking down, food supplies were dwindling, factories closing, speculators flourishing as foodstuffs and fuel were secretly sent out of the country to Sweden. A prominent capitalist, Liadnozov, said: “Starvation and defeat may bring the Russian people to their senses. Revolution is a sickness. Sooner or later the foreign powers must intervene here as one would intervene to cure a sick child.”

It was people like this who in July produced fabricated evidence that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were German agents.

During June although the soviets still had Menshevik majorities, demonstrations in Petrograd carried predominantly Bolshevik slogans. By July, even more formidable demonstrations demanding all power to the soviets led to a near-insurrection in Petrograd.

The Bolsheviks tried to contain this spontaneous outburst because they knew that although the government could be beaten in Petrograd, Russia as a whole was not ready. This line was unpopular with many Bolshevik supporters, but once the insurrection began it was Bolsheviks who assumed the leadership. The uprising was put down, a certain demoralisation set in and support grew for anarchist groups.

The provisional government seized its opportunity and arrested Trotsky, while Lenin escaped to Finland. The government was again reorganised with a socialist minority (that is Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries), with Kerensky as prime minister.

The effect was short-lived. Soldiers continued to desert and military advance turned into retreat, peasants were seizing the land and the economic situation continued to deteriorate.

By September, the power of the Soviets almost equalled that of the government. The Bolsheviks were now a majority in the Soviets and government decrees were often vetoed by the Soviets. A tsarist officer, General Kornilov, proceeded to march on Petrograd with at least some of the provisional government ministers in league with him.

Some Bolsheviks now favoured supporting Kerensky’s government against Kornilov. Lenin and Trotsky said, yes we must certainly fight Kornilov, but it would be wrong to support Kerensky. Lenin’s policy prevailed and the Soviets marched against Kornilov with separate ideas and slogans, and when Kornilov was beaten the Soviets were ready to challenge the government.

The government then proposed a democratic conference on October 7 for the purpose of setting up a parliament. This was an attempt to reconcile the Soviets to its power, which many Bolsheviks supported. They argued that the revolution should and must be led from the Soviets to the establishment of bourgeois parliamentarism and that participation in the parliament was necessary to complete the democratic revolution.

The Bolsheviks, at Lenin’s insistence, withdrew on October 10, 1917 and on October 16 the Soviets set up a Military Revolutionary Committee headed by Trotsky, which became the organ of insurrection.

Amid rumours of another right-wing attempt at a coup, soldiers and workers took over Petrograd on October 25, 1917 (November 7 in the European calendar), under the direction of Trotsky.

Once the Military Revolutionary Committee had arrested the provisional government ministers and taken the Winter Palace, they handed government authority to the All Russian Congress of Soviets, then meeting in Petrograd. The Menshevik members walked out, as did the right-wing Social Revolutionaries.

The first Soviet government was set up by the congress, which had a large Bolshevik majority.

At the congress, Lenin said:

Within Russia a huge section of the peasantry have said that they have played long enough with the capitalists, and will now march with the workers … 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 must now set about building a proletarian socialist state in Russia. Meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, October 25, 1917


The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky

Ten days that shook the world, John Reed

Lessons of October, Leon Trotsky

In defence of October, Leon Trotsky (1932 Speech)

The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemberg

The prophet armed, The prophet unarmed, The prophet outcast, Isaac Deutscher

Stalin, Isaac Deutscher

The Permanent Revolution, Leon Trotsky