Just over a century ago the world was in the midst of its first ‘global’ imperialist war. Developed capitalist states, grouped into blocs, sent people in their millions to die in order to secure control of markets and resources. It is often said that ‘war is the midwife of revolution’ and the most powerful example of this was the Russian working class becoming the first to revolt against the war and capitalism in what became the first – and to date only – democratic workers’ state to have been established.
Today we are seeing a similar ramping up of inter- imperialist tensions, with the US in the centre of one sphere of influence and China the other – and the Ukraine war is the latest escalation. We are living in a world of increasing instability, but also one where increasing fightback from the working class is taking place. While many things are very different between now and then, there are also important similarities – capitalism remains an exploitative system and many of the tasks carried out by the Bolsheviks to lead the Russian working class to victory are the same today.
The First World War and the February Revolution of 1917
As the First World War wore on, and the reality of trench warfare became known and food scarcity became more and more dire, the people of Russia became increasingly desperate, sparking the first Russian revolution of 1917. Protests and strikes against the war and rising food prices eventually forced the Tsar to abdicate, but at this point the working class did not yet have its sights set on taking power into their own hands. They sought to try what seemed like the ‘easier ways out’ first, and power fell into the hands of ‘progressive’ politicians in what became known as the Provisional Government, backed by the capitalists and generals as well as the imperialist powers allied to Russia in the war.
But also emerging were the democratic councils of the working class – the ‘soviets’. These had first been created in the revolution of 1905, but were revived in 1917. The trade unions had been an important school for the working class in the strikes which preceded the war but were by-passed by the development of the soviets which brought together workers from different workplaces and occupations, and drew in previously unorganised workers, including soldiers and peasants. The soviets became parliaments of the working class, with different political tendencies arguing for different programmes.
In the capital, Petrograd, the soviet commanded more support amongst the population than the Provisional Government, which found itself in crisis from its inception. The Menshevik party and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) (who at this point between them had the support of a majority of the workers, peasants and soldiers in the Soviets) threw their support behind the Provisional Government, but its support amongst the general working class quickly diminished as it became clear that they were not going to fulfil the promises of the February Revolution. They were continuing the war, they were not implementing the land reform, they had no interest in aiding the liberation of oppressed nations within the Russian empire, and they were not solving the crises of food and supplies created by the war.
The Provisional Government increasingly had power in name only, as the confidence and influence of the soviets grew. This became particularly evident when in August the monarchist general Kornilov moved on Petrograd in order to carry out a coup against the provisional government. It was the workers and soldiers led by the Bolsheviks who mobilised to stop Kornilov. This not only boosted the confidence of the workers in their own power, but the role the Bolsheviks played resulted in them gaining an overwhelming majority in the soviets of the main cities by the end of September.
The permanent revolution
While the Mensheviks considered themselves socialists, they dismissed the potential of the revolution to go further than the limited democratic gains of February, because they believed that there would have to be a period of sustained capitalist development with the aim of socialism postponed to some point in the future. This mistaken approach was brilliantly challenged by Leon Trotsky in his theory of the permanent revolution, a theory which, although confirmed later by the events of 1917, stood in opposition to the ideas of many Bolshevik leaders. Despite their earlier history of radical violence against Tsarism, the SRs were fundamentally the same.
The Bolsheviks realised that the situation of ‘dual power’ that existed with the government and the soviets could not last, and would have to be resolved one way or another – if the working class did not move to assume power they and the gains of February 1917 would be defeated in a counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks thus rallied behind the slogan of ‘All power to the Soviets!’ while the Mensheviks effectively positioned themselves on the side of the capitalists. When the Bolsheviks moved to end the stalemate that had developed between capitalists and workers by October, and organised to take power into the hands of the working class, the Mensheviks opposed it, despite the massive support it had from the masses.
Even after the workers, with the Bolsheviks at their head, came to power, the Mensheviks, along with the SRs continued to oppose workers’ rule. Later, the Menshevik leader Dan would explain that during those first days he had hoped the revolution would be crushed by force. Only days after the insurrection, they, together with the SRs, formed the “Committee of Safety for Fatherland and Revolution” with the aim of overthrowing the Bolsheviks by violence.
Reform or revolution
Revolutions push class conflict out into the open, and while comparisons with situations like Britain today may seem far-fetched, the limits of reformism, the idea of incremental change in the direction of socialism, remain as relevant today as in 1917. The surge in strike action in Britain and the creation of Enough is Enough as a way to build something broader that can bring together different sections of the labour movement are hugely positive developments in which Socialist Alternative are actively participating in.
And while popular figures like Mick Lynch have a positive effect on the labour movement in articulating the nature of the conflict between striking workers and employers and the government, there are fundamental limitations stemming from their view that “socialism is going to be won through pragmatic reform of our system” (Lynch, Novara Media panel discussion at TWT22).
Revolutionary socialists are not averse to participating in electoral politics or broader formations, and we’re fully in favour of putting demands on establishment politicians. With mounting popular pressure and especially with a unified voice from the working class, people in power can indeed be pushed towards decisions they would not otherwise make, but the focus must be to build that popular pressure to win.
The focus must also be on building the forces of the working class independent of establishment politics. This means re-building the unions at a grassroots and workplace level, with the current strike waves as a launchpad. It means pushing for increased democracy in the unions, so the power of members increases and leaderships unwilling to sufficiently fight can be challenged.
In the lead-up to the October Revolution there were true mass organisations for workers to participate in, to organise and formulate their demands: the trade unions in the pre-war strike waves, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (the broad workers’ party in which were both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks), the soviets from February and workplace factory committees from the mid-summer. While these organisations – and especially their leaderships – had their limitations, they provided the groundwork to build on. The Bolsheviks would themselves participate in these organisations, supporting any steps forward but highlighting the political limitations of the leaderships, and putting forward their arguments for what the way forward was.
This is also an area where the Bolshevik approach differs from reformist socialists: the idea that ‘democracy’ does not mean casting a vote every few years for who you want to govern you – rather than a mass movement, with a class-conscious leadership, taking decisions and implementing them. This was important both in bringing the working class up to the point where they were able to take power, but also in continuing to build support for the revolution after October.
During August and September of 1917, Lenin wrote a vitally important pamphlet – The State and Revolution – in which he discusses the repressive and essentially un-democratic nature of the capitalist state and what it would have to be replaced by under socialism. As part of the socialist revolution, he suggests, the division between “executive and legislative” be dissolved – i.e. instead of a prime minister standing over a law-making parliament, the workers themselves would make the decisions of how their workplaces would be run, and democracy would thus be part of everyday life.
Moreover, he put forward that all officials must be elected and subject to recall, and also that their salaries should be at the level of ordinary workers, arguing that “these simple and “self evident” democratic measures, while completely uniting the interests of the workers and the majority of the peasants, at the same time serve as a bridge leading from capitalism to socialism.”
The national question
For Marxists, a workers’ revolution is carried out by the working class with majority support among the mass of the population, including oppressed groups and nationalities. This principle was at the core of the Bolsheviks’ approach to the right to self-determination of the different nations of the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks recognised the importance of the fight against national oppression, and included in their programme that a workers’ government would not impose its rule over the nations previously oppressed by the tsarist regime (and the Provisional Government) but would grant them the right to either enter into a voluntary union with the Soviet Federation, or completely secede if that is what they wanted. It took less than a week for the new Soviet government to recognise Finland’s right to independence. This was followed by a series of other nations.
While it may seem like this would weaken the revolution, the Bolsheviks recognised that not doing so would prevent the revolution from succeeding at all as it would be opposed by the workers of these nations. Efforts were instead made to build the forces of socialism within these nations, and for them to join the side of the Revolution. This is in stark contrast both with Stalin’s later approach, and with Putin, who has made a point of attacking Lenin and the acts of the Bolsheviks during the revolution for breaking up Russia, and leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In reality, the breakup of the Soviet Union grew from its degeneration into an authoritarian state under Stalin, and ultimately the dismantling of the planned economy by a privileged bureaucracy, along nationalist and capitalist lines.
Successes of the revolution and its degeneration
Within hours of taking over power from the Provisional Government the new soviet government made decrees to lay the basis for achieving the three basic demands they had been organising around – ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. With the decree on peace they started pursuing a ceasefire and peace terms to end the war with the Central Powers. With the decree on land they seized the land of the feudal lords and re-distributed it to be used by the poor peasantry. Workers started taking control over banks and industry in preparation for taking them into public ownership in the coming months, laying the basis for a democratically planned, state-owned economy.
The Bolsheviks were under no illusions that the workers’ state could survive without revolutions in more advanced countries and founded the Communist International to advance the cause of world revolution. Russian society was economically underdeveloped, and the support from more industrialised allies was needed to fully carry through the revolution to the point of achieving all its aims and moving towards socialism.
Unfortunately these revolutions failed and in the desperation coming out of the civil war launched by pro-capitalist forces against the revolution, the opening was created for Stalin to lead a political counter revolution. This meant destroying the democratic gains of the October revolution – a direction which was opposed by Leon Trotsky and the supporters of the Left Opposition, who fought to defend the principles of workers’ democracy. Initially, the bureaucracy maintained the planned economy – albeit in the hands of a small bureaucratic clique – before eventually dismantling it entirely.
Since 1917 there have been countless revolutionary movements, but none have established a full workers’ democracy as was done in Russia in the first years of the revolution. The crucial difference was the presence of the Bolsheviks – a party which managed to apply the theories first developed by Marx and Engels around the nature of capitalism and the role that the working class must have in its overthrow. They based themselves on the masses, gauging what the current moods and ideas were, basing their own policies on this with an objective understanding of what the current conditions were, but also a sober understanding of the magnitude of their task in winning majority support amongst workers for revolutionary change.
The understanding that such a party is essential to achieving a socialist society is why we are building the forces of Marxism today, in the tradition of the Bolsheviks. And the need for any revolution to spread internationally is why the international aspect of the work we do in International Socialist Alternative is absolutely essential.