The Russian Revolution (part 1): The first massive and conscious revolution in history

In the series Russia 1917

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The struggle of the working class and the communist revolution are notions that many today reject as outmoded, disproved by historical experience. The collapse of the state capitalist regimes in the USSR and the whole former eastern bloc into the whirlpool of the world economic crisis has provided all the detractors of the Russian revolution of 1917 with an opportunity to reinforce all the old lies which have been poured out for decades about this historic event. Among these lies is the one that presents the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia as a vulgar coup d'etat, the manipulation of the backward masses of Tsarist Russia by the Bolshevik party. We have already devoted a number of texts to the nature of the revolution and of the capitalist counter-revolution in Russia[1]. In this series, which we are beginning with this article, we want to go over and deepen the fundamental aspects of this experience of the proletariat and its revolutionary organisations. In this issue, we deal first with the fact that the Russian revolution of 1917 was above all the collective work of the proletariat in the international framework of a wave of revolts by the working class against the war and the capitalist system, an experience which, for all its limits, remains rich with lessons that can help us understand the capacity of the working class to take us own destiny into its hands, in subsequent articles, we will go back over the role of the Bolshevik party in 1917, then look at the defeat of the revolution and the triumph of the capitalist counter-revolution in Russia itself.

"The Russian revolution of 1917 was above all a magnificent action by the exploited masses in order to try to destroy the bourgeois order, which reduced them to the state of beasts of burden of an economic machine and cannon fodder for the wars between the capitalist powers. An action where millions of proletarians, bringing behind them all the other exploited layers of society, managed to tear down their atomisation by consciously unifying, by giving themselves the means to act collectively as a single force. An action to make them masters of their own destinies, to begin the construction of another society, a society without exploitation, without wars, without classes, without nations, without poverty: a communist society" (International Review n°51: ‘70 years ago, the Russian Revolution')

The Russian revolution: spearhead of the proletariat's international movement against the world war

In 1914 the governments, kings, politicians, the military, as agents of a social system which had entered its decadent period, led the world into the cataclysm of the First World War. The slaughter of 20 million people; levels of destruction never seen until then; destabilisation, penury and starvation on the home front; death, savage military discipline and untold suffering at the military front; all of Europe drowned in a sea of chaos, barbarism, the devastation of industries, buildings, monuments ...

The international proletariat, after it had stopped being dragged along by the patriotic poison and democratic falsehoods of the different governments, supported by the treason of the majority of the Social Democratic parties and the unions, began to react against this military barbarity. From the end of 1915, strikes, revolts against hunger, demonstrations against the war, exploded in Russia, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. At the front, mutinies, collective desertions, fraternisation between the soldiers of both gangs took place, above all in the Russian and German armies... The internationalists were at the head of this movement - the Bolsheviks, the Spartakists, the whole left of the 2nd International. From the outbreak of the war in August 1914, they unhesitatingly denounced it as imperialist robbery, as a manifestation of the debacle of world capitalism, as the signal for the proletariat to complete its historic mission: the international socialist revolution.

At the vanguard of this international movement, which would end the war and open up the possibility of the world revolution, were the Russian workers, who from the end of 1915 engaged in economic strikes which were severely repressed. Nevertheless, the movement grew: the 9th of January 1916 - the anniversary of the first revolution in 1905 - was commemorated by the workers with massive strikes. New strikes broke out all through the year, accompanied by meetings, discussions, the raising of demands and clashes with the police: "By the end of 1916 prices are rising by leaps and bounds. To the inflation and the breakdown in transport, there is added the actual lack of goods. The population's level of consumption has been cut in half The curve of the workers' movement rises sharply. In October the struggle enters its decisive phase, uniting all forms of discontent into one. Petrograd draws back from the February leap. A wave of meetings runs through the factories. The topics: food supplies, high cost of living, war, government. Bolshevik leaflets are distributed; political strikes begin; improvised demonstrations occur at factory gates; cases of fraternisation between certain factories and the soldiers are observed; a stormy protest strike flares up over the trial of the revolutionary sailors of the Baltic fleet ... The workers all felt that no retreat was possible. In every factory an active nucleus was forming, oftenest around the Bolsheviks. Strikes and meetings went on continuously throughout the first two weeks of February. On the 8th, at the Putilov factory, the police received ‘a hail of slag and old iron'... On the 19th, a mass of people gathered around the food shops, especially women, all demanding bread. A day later bakeries were sacked in several parts of the city. These were the heat lightening of the revolution, coming in a few days" (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol 1, ‘The Proletariat and the Peasantry', pages 56, 57, 58. Sphere Books edition, 1967).

A mass movement

These were the successive stages of a social process which today many workers see as being utopian, the workers' transformation from an atomised, apathetic, divided mass, into a united class which acted as one man and therefore was able to launch a revolutionary combat, as was shown by the five days from the 22nd to the 27th of February 1917: "The workers came to the factories in the morning; instead of

going to work they hold meetings; then begin processions towards the centre. New districts and new groups of the population are drawn into the movement. The slogan ‘bread' is crowded out or obscured by Louder slogans of ‘down with the autocracy', ‘down with the war' ... Continuous demonstrations on the Nevsky prospect ... the masses will no longer retreat, they resist with optimistic brilliance, they stay on the street even after murderous volleys ... ‘don't shoot your brothers and sisters!' cry the workers. And not only that: ‘Come with us!' Thus in the streets and squares, by the bridges, at the barrack-gates, is waged a ceaseless struggle -

now dramatic, now unnoticeable - but always a desperate struggle, for the heart of the soldier... The workers will not surrender or retreat; under fire they are still holding their own. And with them their women - wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts. Yes, this is the very hour they had so often whispered about: ‘if only we could all get together?'" (Trotsky, op. cit, Vol 1, ‘Five days', pages 110, 117, 129).

The ruling classes could not believe it: they thought that it was a question of a revolt which would disappear once it had been taught a good lesson. When the terrorist actions of the small elite corps sent by the colonels of the gendarmerie ended in a noisy fiasco, the deep roots of the movement were made very clear: "The revolution seems defenceless to these colonels, because it's still terrifically chaotic ... But that is an error of vision, It is only seeming chaos. Beneath it is proceeding an irresistible crystallization of the masses around new axes" (Trotsky: idem, page 136).

Once the first chains had been broken, the workers did not want to go back, and in order to go forward on firm ground they took up again the experience of 1905 by creating Soviets, unitary organizations of the whole class in struggle. However, the Soviets were immediately grabbed hold of by the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties, old workers' parties which had gone over to the bourgeois camp through their participation in the war and which were now serving to form the Provisional Government of ‘great personalities' such as Miliukov, Rodiazno, Kerensky ...

This government's first obsession was to convince the workers that they should "return to normality", "abandon their dreams" and transform themselves into a submissive, passive, atomised mass, which the bourgeoisie needed in order to carry on business and the war. The workers would have none of it. They wanted to live and develop the new politics, which they all exercised, uniting in a tight knot the

struggle for immediate interests with the struggle for the general interests of the whole of humanity. So, against the insistence of the bourgeoisie and social traitors that "the task is to work and not to demand, because now we have political

freedom", the workers demanded the 8 hour day in order to have "freedom" to meet, discuss, read, to be part of "a wave of strikes which recommenced after the fall of absolutism. In each factory or workshop, without waiting for agreements signed by their superiors, they presented demands about wages and the working day. The conflicts deepened day by day and created an atmosphere of struggle" (Ana Penkratova Los Consejos de Fabrica en Ia Rusia de 1917, ‘Los comites de Fabrica obra de la Revolucion')

On the 18th of April, Miliukov, a Kadet minister in the Provisional Government, published a note reaffirming Russia's commitment to its allies in the continuation of the war. This was a real provocation. The workers and soldiers responded immediately: there were spontaneous demonstrations; mass assemblies were held in the working class districts, in the barracks and factories: "The commotion which had overflowed the city, however, did not recede to its banks. Crowds gathered, meetings assembled, they wrangled at street corners, the crowds in the tramway divided into partisans and opponents of Miliukov... The commotion was not limited to Petrograd. In Moscow workers abandoned their machines and the soldiers left their barracks; they took over the streets with their tumultuous protests" (Trotsky: idem, ‘The April Days', p 321). On the 20th of April a gigantic demonstration forced the resignation of Miliukov and the bourgeoisie had to draw back from its war plans.

May saw frantic organizational activity. There were fewer demonstrations and strikes, but this did not express a reflux in the movement: quite the contrary, it marked an advance and development, because the working class was concentrating on its mass self-organization, an aspect of its struggle which had been little developed until then. The Soviets spread to the furthest corners of Russia, while around them grew up a multitude of mass organs: factory committees, peasants' committees, neighbourhood Soviets, soldiers' committees. Through these the masses regrouped, discussed, thought, decided. Through contact with these organs, the most backward workers woke up: "The servants used to being treated like animals and paid next to nothing were getting independent. A pair of shoes cost more than a hundred rubles, and as wages averaged about thirty-five rubles a month the servants refused to stand in queues and wear out their shoes... The izvozchiki (cab-drivers) had a union; they were also represented in the Petrograd Soviet. The waiters and hotel servants were organised, and refused tips" (John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, page 39).

The workers and soldiers began to tire of the never-ending promises of the Provisional Government and its Menshevik and SR supporters, promises which were shown to be empty by growing unemployment and hunger. They could see that in front of the questions of the war and the peasants all they were being offered was pompous speeches. They were becoming fed up with bourgeois politics and began to glimpse the ultimate consequences of their own politics: the demand of ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS was transformed into an aspiration for wide masses of workers[2].

June was a month of intense political agitation that drew together all that had previously taken place and which culminated in armed demonstrations by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd on the 4th and 5th of July. "The factories moved into the front rank Moreover, those plants had been drawn in to the movement which yesterday stood aside. Where the leaders wavered or resisted, younger workers had compelled the member-on-duty of the factory committee to blow the whistle as a signal to stop work ... All factories struck and held meetings. They elected leaders for the demonstrations and delegates to present their demands. From Kronstadt, from New Peterhoff, from Krasnoe Selo, from the Krasnaia Gorka fort, from all the near-by centres, by land and sea, soldiers and sailors were marching with music, with weapons, and, worst of all, with Bolshevik standards" (Trotsky: op cit, Vol 2, ‘The "July Days": Culmination and Rout', page 44).

However, the July days ended up being a bitter fiasco for the workers. The situation was not yet ripe for the taking of power since the soldiers did not fully identify with the workers; the peasants were full of illusions about the Social

Revolutionaries and the movement in the provinces was backward compared to the capital.

In the following two months - August and September - spurred on by the bitterness of defeat and the violent force of the bourgeoisie's repression, the workers began to resolve these obstacles practically. Not through a preconceived plan but as the product of an "ocean of initiatives", of struggles, and discussions in the Soviets which materialized the coming to consciousness of the movement. Thus, the actions of the workers and soldiers became fully fused: "a phenomenon of osmosis appeared, especially in Petrograd. When the agitation united the workers' quarter of Vyborg and the regiments stationed in the capital, a fermentation took place between them. The workers and soldiers regularly went into the street to express their feelings. The street belonged to them. No force, no power, could at those moments stop them from agitating for their demands or singing their revolutionary hymns at the top of their lungs" (G. Soria, Los 300 dias de la Revolucion Rusia, Chapter IV, ‘Un era de crisis').

After the defeat of July, the bourgeoisie finally thought that they could finish with this nightmare. Therefore, they organized a military coup, dividing the task up between Kerenski's ‘democratic' bloc and the openly reactionary bloc of Kornilov - commander-in-chief of the army. The latter brought in the Cossack and Caucasian regiments who still appeared to be loyal to the bourgeois order and tried to launch them against Petrograd.

However, the attempt was a resounding failure. The massive hand of the workers and soldiers, firmly organized by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution - which under the control of the Petrograd Soviet would be transformed into the Revolutionary Military Committee, the organ of the insurrection in October - made Kornilov's troops surrender or stay immobilized - or else, as happened in the majority of cases, they deserted and united with the workers and soldiers.

"The conspiracy was conducted by those circles who were not accustomed to know how to do anything without the lower ranks, without labour forces, without cannon-fodder, without orderlies, servants, clerks, chauffeurs, messengers, cooks, laundresses, switchmen, telegraphers, stablemen, cab drivers. But all these little human bolts and links, unnoticeable, innumerable, necessary, were for the Soviet and against Kornilov. The revolution was omnipresent. It penetrated everywhere, coiling itself around the conspiracy. It had everywhere its eyes, its ears, its hands. The ideal of military education is that the soldier should act when unseen by the officer exactly as before his eyes. But the Russian soldiers and sailors of 1917, without carrying out official orders even before the eyes of the commanders, would eagerly catch on the fly the commands of the revolution, or still oftener fulfil them on their own initiative before they arrived .... For them [the masses] it was not a case of defending the government but of defending the revolution. So much the more resolute was their struggle. The resistance of the rebels grew out of the very road beds, out of the stones, out of the air. The railroad workers of the Luga stations stubbornly refused to move the troop trains. The Cossack echelons also found themselves immediately surrounded by armed soldiers from the Luga garrison, 20,000 strong. There was no military encounter, but there was something far more dangerous: contact, social exchange, interpenetration." (Trotsky: Vol 2, ‘The Bourgeoisie Measures Strength with the Democracy', pages 222 and 229-230).

A conscious movement

The bourgeoisie sees workers' revolutions as acts of collective madness, a spontaneous chaos that finishes spontaneously. Bourgeois ideology cannot admit that the exploited can act on their own initiative. Collective action, solidarity, conscious action by the majority of workers, such notions bourgeois thought considers to be unnatural (since what is "natural" for the bourgeoisie is the war of each against all and the manipulation of the great mass of humanity by a small elite).

"In all past revolutions those who fought on the barricades were workers, apprentices, in part students, and the soldiers come over to their side. But afterwards the solid bourgeoisie, having cautiously watched the barricades through their windows, gathered up the power. But the February revolution of 1917 was distinguished from former revolutions by the incomparably higher social character and political level of the revolutionary class ... and the consequent formation at the very moment of victory of a new organ of revolutionary power, the Soviet, based upon the armed strength of the masses" (Trotsky: vol 1, ‘The Paradox of the February Revolution', page 162 - 163)

This totally new nature of the October revolution corresponds to the nature of the proletariat, an exploited and revolutionary class at the same time, which can only liberate itself if it is capable of acting in a collective and conscious way.

The Russian revolution was not the mere passive product of dreadful objective conditions. It was also the product of a collective development of consciousness. The drawing of lessons, the reflections, slogans, and memories were part of a continuum of proletarian experience which connected up with the Paris Commune of 1871, the revolution of 1905, the battle of the Communist League, of the First and Second Internationals, of the Zimmerwald Left, of the Bolsheviks ... Clearly it was a response to the war, to hunger and the barbaric agony of Tsarism, but it was a conscious response, guided by the historical and global continuity of the proletarian movement.

This was concretely manifested in the enormous experience the Russian workers had gained from the great struggles of 1888, 1902, the 1905 Revolution and the battles of 1912 - 1914. At the same time this process had given birth to the Bolshevik party on the left-wing of the 2nd International. "It was necessary that there should be not masses in abstract, but masses of Petrograd workers and Russian workers in general, who had passed through the revolution of 1905, through the Moscow Insurrection of December 1905 ... It was necessary that throughout this mass should be scattered workers who had thought over the perspectives of the revolution, meditated hundreds of times about the question of the army" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘Who Led the February Insurrection?' pages 152 - 153).

More than 70 years before the 1917 revolution, Marx and Engels had written that "a revolution ... is necessary therefore, not only because the ruling class can be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew" (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, chapter 1, ‘Feuerbach'). The Russian revolution fully confirms this position: the movement brought with it the materials for the self-education of the masses: "A revolution teaches and teaches fast. In that lies its strength. Every week brings something new to the masses. Every two months creates an epoch. At the end of February, the insurrection. At the end of April, a demonstration of armed workers and soldiers in Petrograd. At the beginning of July, a new assault, far broader in scope and under more resolute slogans. At the end of August, Kornilov's attempt at an overthrow beaten off by the masses. At the end of October, conquest of power by the Bolsheviks. Under the these events, so striking in their rhythm, molecular processes were taking place, welding the heterogeneous parts of the working class into one political whole" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘Shifts in the Masses', page 390).

"All Russia was learning to read, and reading politics, economics, history - because the people wanted to know ... The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, in the first six months, went out every day tons, carloads, trainloads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water ... Then the Talk, beside which Carlyle's ‘flood of French speech' was a mere trickle. Lectures, debates, speeches - in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks ... meetings in the trenches at the front, in village squares, factories ... What a marvelous sight to Putilovsky (the Putilov Factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say as long as they could talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting of impromptu debates, everywhere ... At every meeting, attempts to limit the time of speakers were voted down, and every man free to express the thought that was in him" (John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, pages 39 - 40).

The "democratic" bourgeoisie talks a lot about "freedom of expression", but experience tells us that all this means is manipulation, theatre and brainwashing: the authentic freedom of expression is that which the proletariat conquers for itself through its revolutionary action: "In each factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer stations, even in the depopulated villages, the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress. Everywhere were to be found the interpreters of events, chiefly from among the workers, from whom one inquired ‘What's the news?' and from whom one awaited needed words... Their class instinct was refined by a political criterion, and though they did not think all their ideas through to the end, nevertheless their thought ceaselessly and stubbornly worked its way in a single direction. Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created, unwittingly to a superficial glance but no less decisively, an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as conscious process" (Trotsky, op cit, vol 1 ‘Who Led the February Revolution?', page 153).

This reflection, this coming to consciousness laid bare "all the material and moral injustice inflicted on the workers, the inhuman exploitation, the miserable wages, the systems of refined punishments and the offences to its human dignity by the capitalists and the bosses this network of ruinous and disgraceful conditions in which it traps them, this hell which represents the daily destiny of the proletariat under the yoke of capitalism" (Rosa Luxemburg, ‘In the Revolutionary Hour').

For the same reason, the Russian revolution presented a permanent, inseparable unity between the political and economic struggle: "After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand shoots of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers' condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval, it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength and at the same time leads the indefatigable economic sappers of the proletariat at all times, now here and now there, to isolated sharp conflicts, out of which political conflicts on a large scale unexpectedly explode" (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions).

This development of consciousness led the workers in June-July to the conviction that they should not waste and disperse their energies in a thousand partial economic conflicts, but instead should concentrate their energy on the revolutionary political struggle. This did not mean rejecting the struggle for immediate demands; on the contrary, it meant taking up their political consequences: "The soldiers and workers considered that all other questions - that of wages, of the price of bread, and of whether it is necessary to die at the front for nobody knew what - depended on the question who was to rule the country in the future, the bourgeoisie or their own Soviet" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 2, ‘The July Days: Preparation and Beginning', page 26).

This development of consciousness within the working masses culminated with the October insurrection, whose atmosphere Trotsky has so admirably described: "The masses felt a need to stand close together. Each wanted to test himself through the others, and all tensely and attentively kept observing how one and the same thought would develop in their various minds with its different shades and features. Unnumbered crowds of people stood about the circuses and other big buildings where the most popular Bolshevik would address them with the latest arguments and the latest appeals ... But incomparably more effective in that last period before the insurrection was the molecular agitation carried out by the nameless workers, sailors, soldiers, winning converts one by one, breaking down the last doubts, overcoming the last hesitations. Those months of feverish political life had created innumerable cadres in the lower ranks, had educated hundreds and thousand of rough diamonds, who were accustomed to look on politics from below and not above ... The mass would no longer endure in its midst the wavering, the dubious, the neutral. It was striving to get hold of everybody, to attract, to convince, to conquer. The factories joined with the regiments in sending delegates to the front. The trenches got into contact with the workers and peasants near-by in the rear. In the towns along the front there was an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations in which the soldiers and sailors would bring their activity into accord with that of the worker and peasants" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 3 ‘Withdrawal from the Pre-Parliament and Struggle for the Soviet Congress', pages 73, 74-75).

"At the same time that the official society, all that many-storied superstructure of ruling classes, layers, groups, parties and cliques, lived from day to day by inertia and automatism, nourishing themselves with the relics of worn-out ideas, deaf to the inexorable demands of evolution, flattering themselves with phantoms and foreseeing nothing - at the same time, in the working masses there was taking place an independent and deep process of growth, not only of hatred for the rulers, but of critical understanding of their impotence, an accumulation of experience and creative consciousness which the revolutionary insurrection and its victory only completed" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘Who Led the February Revolution?', page 154).

The proletariat: the only revolutionary class

While bourgeois politics are carried out by that small minority of society constituted by the ruling class, the politics of the proletariat do not pursue any particular benefit but that of the whole of humanity: "The proletariat can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it [the bourgeoisie] without at the same time freeing the whole of society from exploitation" (Engels, 1883 Preface to The Communist Manifesto).

The revolutionary struggle of the proletariat constitutes the only hope of liberation for all the exploited masses. As the Russian revolution showed, the workers were able to win over the soldiers (in their great majority peasants in uniform) and of the peasant population to its cause. The proletariat thus confirmed that the socialist revolution was not only a response to its own interests but was the only way to end the war and, in general, to capitalist relations of exploitation and oppression.

The desire of workers to give a perspective to the other oppressed classes was skilfully manipulated by the Mensheviks and SRs, who in the name of the alliance with the peasants and soldiers tried to make the proletariat renounce its autonomous class struggle and the socialist revolution. This thinking appears, at first glance, to be very "logical": if we want to win over other classes it is necessary to bend our demands, in order to find the lowers common denominator around which we can all unite.

However: "The lower middle classes, the small manufacturer, the shop keeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative, nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history" (Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto).

Therefore, in an inter-classist alliance, the proletariat has everything to lose. In such a situation, the proletariat will not win over the other oppressed classes but will push them into the arms of capital and decisively weaken its owns unity and consciousness. It will not put forward its own demands but dilute and negate them; it will not advance on the road towards socialism, but get bogged down and drowned in a swamp of decadent capitalism. In fact, it does not help the petit-bourgeois and peasant layers but contributes to them being sacrificed on the altar of capital, because "popular" demands are the disguise the bourgeoisie uses to pass off the contraband of its own interests. The "people" do not represent the interests of the "working classes", but the exploiting, national, imperialist interests of the whole bourgeoisie: "the union of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries meant not a co-operation of proletariat with peasants, but a coalition of those parties which had broken with the proletariat and the peasants respectively, for the sake of a bloc with the possessing classes" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘The Executive Committee', page 218).

If the proletariat wants to win the non-exploiting layers to its own cause it must steadfastly affirm its own demands, its own being, its class autonomy. It must win the other non-exploiting layers by showing that "if by chance they are revolutionary they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their own present, but their future interests, they desert their own stand-point to place themselves at that of the proletariat" (The Communist Manifesto).

The Russian proletariat, by centring its struggle on putting an end to the imperialist war; by putting forward a perspective for the solution of the agrarian problem[3]; by creating the Soviets as the organisation of all the exploited; and, above all, by posing the alternative of a new society faced with the bankruptcy and chaos of capitalist society, was able to become the vanguard of all the exploited classes. It knew how to give them a perspective around which they could unite and struggle.

The proletariat's affirmation of its autonomy did not separate it from the other oppressed layers; on the contrary, it allowed it to separate them from the bourgeois state. In response to the impact on the soldiers and the peasants of the Russian bourgeoisie's campaign about the "egotism" of the workers' demand for the 8-hour day, "The workers understood the manoeuvre and skilfully warded it off. For this it was only necessary to tell the truth - to cite the figures of war profits, to show the soldiers the factories and shops with the road of machines, the hell fires of the furnaces, their perpetual front where victims where innumerable. On the initiative of the workers there began regular visits by troops of the garrison to the factories, and especially to those working on munitions. The soldiers looked and listened. The workers demonstrated and explained. These visits would end in triumphant fraternization" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘The Executive Committee', page 235).

"The army was incurably sick. It was still capable of speaking its word in the revolution, but so far as making war was concerned, it did not exist" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘The Army and the War', page 250). The army's "incurable illness" was the product of the working class' autonomous struggle. Likewise, faced with the agrarian problem, which decadent capitalist is not only incapable of resolving, but unceasingly aggravates, the proletariat responded resolutely: "every day, legions of agitators, delegations from the factory committees, from the soviets left the industrial cities, in order to animate the struggle, in order to organize the agricultural workers and poor peasants. The soviets and factory committees adopted numerous resolutions declaring their solidarity with the peasants and proposing concrete measures for the solution of the agrarian problem; the Petrograd conference of factory and shop committees devoted their attention to the agrarian question, and ... drew up a manifesto to the peasants. The proletariat feels itself to be not only a special class, but also the leader of the people" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 3, ‘Withdrawal from the Pre-Parliament and Struggle for the Soviet Congress', page 77).

The Soviets

Bourgeois politics sees the majority as a mass to be manipulated in order to give a democratic façade to powers they have given to the state. Workers politics express the free and conscious work of the great majority for their own interests.

"The soviets, councils of deputies or delegations of the workers' assemblies appeared spontaneously for the first time in the great strike of the masses that took place in Russia in 1905. They were the direct emanation of thousands of workers' assemblies, in the factories and neighbourhoods, which multiplied everywhere, in the greatest explosion of workers' life that had been seen in history up until then. As if taking up the struggle where the Paris Commune had left off, the workers in practice generalized the form of organization which the Communards had intended: sovereign assemblies, centralized through elected and revocable delegates" (Revolution Internationale, organ of the ICC in France, no 190, ‘The proletariat will have to impose its dictatorship in order to lead humanity to its emancipation').

From the workers' overthrow of the Tsar in February, Soviets of workers' deputies were rapidly formed in Petrograd, Moscow, Karkov, Helsingfors, in all the industrial cities. They were joined by soldiers' delegations and, later on, those of the peasants. Around the Soviets the proletariat and exploited masses formed a network of struggle organizations, based on assemblies, on free discussion and decisions taken by all the exploited: neighbourhood soviets, factory committees, soliders' committees, peasants committees ... "the network of workers' councils and soldiers locals throughout Russia formed the spinal column of the revolution. With their support the revolution spread like a creeper throughout the country, their very existence posed an enormous difficulty to all the attempts of reaction" (D. Anweiler, The Soviets in Russia, Chapter 3, part 3).

Bourgeois "democracy" reduces the "participation" of the masses to the casting of a vote once every four or five years for a man who will do what is necessary for the bourgeoisie; opposed to this, the soviets constitute the permanent and direct participation of the mass of workers who in gigantic assemblies discuss and decide on all the questions of society. The delegates are elected and revocable at all times and participate in congress with definite mandates.

Bourgeois "democracy" conceives of "participation" in terms of the sham of the free individual who decides only through the ballot box. Thus, it is the consecration of atomization, individualism, all against all, the masking of class divisions, which benefit the minority and exploiting class. The soviets, by contrast, are based on collective discussion and decisions, in which each can feel the strength and force of the whole, developing all their capacities while at the same time reinforcing the collective. The soviets arise from the autonomous organization of the working class in order, from this platform, to struggle for the abolition of classes.

The workers, soldiers and peasants saw the soviets as their organization: "Not only the workers and soldiers of the enormous garrisons in the rear, but all the many coloured small people of the towns - mechanics, street peddlers, petty officials, cab-drivers, janitors, servants of all kinds - alien to the Provisional Government and its bureaux, were seeking a closer and more accessible authority. In continually increasing numbers, peasants' delegates were appearing at the Tauride Palace. The masses poured into the Soviet as though into the triumphal gates of the revolution. All that remained outside the boundaries of the Soviet seemed to fall away from the revolution, seemed somehow to belong to another world. And so it was in reality. Beyond the boundaries of the Soviet remained the world of the property owner, in which all colours mingled now in one grayish-pink defensive tint" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘The New Power', page 192).

Nothing could happen in the whole of Russia without the Soviets: the delegation of the Baltic and Black Sea fleets declared on the 16th of March that they would only obey the orders of the Provisional Government which were in accord with the decisions of the soviets. The 1720th Regiment was even more explicit: "The army and population should only submit to the decisions of the Soviet. Orders of the government which contravene the decisions of the Soviet are not to be carried out". The great capitalist and minister of the Provisional Government, Guchkov, declared that "unfortunately, the government does not yet have effective power: the troops, railways, post, telegraph are all in the hands of the soviet, which can show that government only exists in so far as the soviet permits it to exist".

The working class, as the class that aspires to the conscious and revolutionary transformation of the world, needs an organ that permits it to express all its tendencies, all its thinking, all its capacities; an extremely dynamic organ which in each moment synthesizes the evolution and advance of the masses; an organ that does not fall into conservatism and bureaucratism; which permits it to reject and combat all attempts to confiscate the direct power of the majority. An organ of work, where things are rapidly and agilely decided on, although at the same time in a collective and conscious manner; an organ whose form allows it feel a part of its work: "They [the Soviets] would not accommodate themselves to any theory of the division of power, but kept interfering in the administration of the army, in economic conflicts, in questions of food and transport, even in the courts of justice. The Soviets under pressure from the workers decreed the eight-hour day, removed reactionary executives, ousted the more intolerable commissars of the Provisional Government, conducted searches and arrests, suppressed hostile newspapers" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol 1, ‘The First Coalition', page 335).

We have seen how the working class was capable of uniting itself, of expressing all its creative energy, of acting in an organized and collective way and finally, of raising itself up before society as the revolutionary class whose mission is to install a new society, without classes and without the state. But in order to do this the working class had to destroy the power of the enemy class: the bourgeois state, embodied by the Provisional Government. It had to impose its own power: the power of the soviets.

In the second part of this article we will examine how the class dealt with the sabotage carried out from inside the soviets by the old socialist parties which had passed to the bourgeoisie - the Mensheviks and the SRs; how it renewed the soviets from top to bottom in order to adapt them for the taking of power; and the role that the Bolshevik party played and the way that this culminated in the October insurrection.

Adalen 21.7.92



[1] In continuity with the contributions of the currents of the Communist Left which preceded us (Bilan and Internationalisme) we have published on the October Revolution and the causes of its degeneration the pamphlet "October 1917. the beginning of the world revolution", the articles ‘The degeneration of the Russian Revolution' and ‘The lessons of Kronstadt' in International Review no. 3, ‘The Left Communists in Russia; (International Review nos. 9 and 10); ‘In defence of the proletarian nature of the October Revolution' (International Review nos. 12 and 13); ‘Party and Councils' (no.17); ‘Russia 1917 and Spain 1936' (no.25); the polemic ‘Lenin as Philosopher' (international Review nos. 25 to 31) etc. Likewise, we have denounced from the beginning the Stalinist regimes and made clear their capitalist nature; see International Review nos. 11, 12, 23, 34 ... and especially the ‘Theses on the Economic and Political Crisis in the Countries of the East.' (International Review no. 60) and ‘The Russian Experience' (International Review no. 61).

 

[2] Two months before, in April, when Lenin formulated this slogan in his famous Theses, it was rejected, including by many inside the Bolshevik Party, as a utopian abstraction ...

 

[3] We have no space in the framework of this article to discuss whether the solution the Bolsheviks and the Soviets finally gave to the agrarian question - the division of the land - was the correct one. Experience, as Rosa Luxemburg rightly said, demonstrated that it was not. But this should not detract from the essential point: that the proletariat and the Bolsheviks seriously posed the necessity for a solution based on the power of the proletariat and the battle for the socialist revolution.