When, in February 1917, soldiers in the trenches of World War I heard that the Russian working class had overthrown Europe's most backward and reactionary regime, they felt that, maybe, times were changing. Right from the first winter of the war, they had demonstrated that they did not feel they had any stake in the bloody rivalry between imperialist capitalist classes who were fighting to increase their share of the world market. But their gestures of defiance towards the war had remained isolated and, eventually, the generals of both warring coalitions restored some discipline in the ranks.
The overthrow of the czar completely transformed the situation - boosting morale among soldiers and paving the way for a long series of mutinies on both sides of the front. Just as in Russia, workers had found in themselves the determination to confront the swords and bullets of the czar's cossacks, more and more European soldiers found the determination to stand up against the threat of the firing squads. In March, the sailors of the German Baltic fleet arrested their officers and took over control of their ships. This first uprising was crushed. But in May, mutinies broke out among French troops. Soldiers raised the red flag, threatening to march on Paris. The rebellion spread to such an extent that soon, the French general staff could only rely on the loyalty of just 2 army divisions out of 56. They unleashed a wave of ruthless repression - a war within the war, against their own soldiers. Eventually the mutinies were drowned in blood, one after the other with hundreds of soldiers paying with their lives for refusing to obey orders. For a few months, discipline was again restored.
But when, 9 months later, on November 7th, the Russian working class took over the running of society, pushing aside the propertied classes; when it proclaimed that the world revolution had begun and called upon the working classes of all countries to follow its lead, it was a watershed. This marked the beginning of an entirely new era in the history of mankind. A wave of hope swept the planet. For the oppressed masses, in the rich industrialised countries as well as in the colonial world, the Russian working class was showing the way towards a new social order which would free them from the yoke of capitalist exploitation, at last. And over the following years, before and after the end of the imperialist war, a revolutionary wave unfolded, from Finland and Hungary to Germany and Italy. Its ripples were felt far beyond Europe, reaching places as distant as the West coast of North America and the British colony of South Africa.
As it happened, however, this explosion of revolutionary energy did not allow the working class to take power anywhere else outside Russia and the new workers' state remained isolated within what came to be known as the Soviet Union. This isolation, together with Russia's economic backwardness, were to result in the subsequent degeneration of the workers' state built by the Russian masses. It was hijacked by a parasitic state bureaucracy which turned soviet rule, the most democratic that the world has ever known, into a bloody dictatorship. And, eventually, the rule of the bureaucracy paved the way for the reintroduction of capitalist social relations in Russia, albeit in a weird, distorted way, as can still be seen today under Putin.
Nevertheless, the events of 1917 did show that across the world, the capitalist classes were sitting on a powder keg. This hasn't changed. In fact, this powder keg has been stoking more and more explosive power ever since, thereby making the proletarian revolution even more necessary and even more possible.
But the events of 1917 and the revolutionary wave that followed have also left us with a heritage which is vital, both for us, revolutionaries, and for the working class and poor masses of the world in general. Because these events showed that, in and of itself, the revolutionary energy of the exploited masses is not enough to break the stranglehold of the ruling classes. They showed that in order to overthrow the existing social order, the proletariat needs an instrument capable of leading it to power, through the obstacles and traps that its class enemy is bound to put in its way. This instrument is a revolutionary workers' party. If the Russian working class succeeded in overthrowing the old social order by taking over the running of society, it was precisely because, alone among the working classes of the time, it already had such a party - the Bolshevik party, which, for many years, had been preparing itself and the workers it influenced, for the task of transforming the spontaneous, instinctive rebellion of the masses into a conscious, collective drive to take power.
And it is this heritage that we intend to highlight today.
The emergence of the Russian communist movement
So, before we go on to the 1917 revolution itself, we need to say what this Bolshevik party was, at the time the revolution broke out. In historical terms, it was a relatively young party, since it had originally been launched just 19 years before the February revolution.
In March 1898, a small number of local Marxist workers' circles coming from industrial towns scattered across the Russian empire, had come together at a conference in the Byelorussian capital, Minsk, in order to break from the isolation in which they had been operating so far. These circles had come out of a large wave of strikes in the country's fast-growing industry, which had developed over the previous few years. At that conference, the delegates decided to join forces in a common organisation, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (or RSDLP). It was decided that the RSDLP would affiliate to the Second International, the workers' international which had been set up a decade before, with the help of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's old comrade in arms. And also that it would launch a political organ entitled the "Rabochaya Gazeta" ("The Workers' Paper") . But given the extremely repressive conditions of czarist Russia, this paper was to be published in exile and then sent clandestinely into Russia, to be distributed by the new party's local groups.
As it happened, the RSDLP got off to a bad start, since almost all the delegates to its founding conference were arrested before it could be concluded and most were deported to Siberia. Nevertheless the RSDLP's banner had been unfurled and, from this point onwards, the new party was to attract all those who were looking towards Marxism as the best instrument available to change society.
Because of its origins, out of the first Marxist workers' circles, one decisive feature of the RSDLP was that all its activity was originally aimed at organising the working class and defending its social and political interests. For the RSDLP activists, the working class was the only force which could offer a future to mankind - because it was the only class which had an interest in freeing society from the straitjacket of the private ownership of the means of production. And, therefore, they considered that their job was primarily to win over workers to Marxist ideas to equip them with the political culture and understanding they needed to fight the system. But also to help them to use the lever of the class struggle in order to organise larger layers of workers around them and, more generally, to reinforce the confidence of the working class in its own collective strength. They met with some sympathy among workers. These workers were mostly young. They were concentrated in large workplaces and could, therefore, conceive more easily of the collective strength they could wield. And, what's more, they had neither the illusions that are generated today by the trade unions' reformist practices, nor the bitterness which many workers feel towards any form of working class organisation, precisely due to these practices.
The RSDLP activists' lives were hectic. The huge machinery of the czarist political police left them very little time to be actively involved on the ground. After a few months of activity, at best a year or two, most had already been arrested at least once and sentenced to prison or deportation. When they got out of prison or came back from deportation, they often had to spend some time abroad in exile to avoid being re-arrested immediately. It certainly took guts and a deep commitment to the cause of the proletariat, for them to go on fighting. But, at the same time, those activists who did stick it out, were naturally selected, so to speak, for their resilience and determination, while the obstacles they had to overcome daily in their activities was a practical school which gave them a fast-track, solid training.
Nevertheless, being active under these conditions was arduous, constantly interrupted by the regime's repression and progress was slow, when there was any at all. This led some of the party leaders to look for shortcuts. In order to increase the flow of new recruits, some wanted the RSDLP to be more welcoming to the growing numbers of bourgeois intellectuals who were opposed to czarism, but not necessarily keen to risk too much. Others wanted to focus the party's activities on purely economic struggles, while toning down its political language if it proved unpopular among workers or attracted too much police attention. However, against both these trends, the younger generation in the leadership, led by Lenin, wanted to ensure that only those activists who were really committed to the cause of the revolution should be admitted into the party, that all the party's activities should be subordinated to its revolutionary aims and that, consequently, it should devote a large part of its efforts to educating its supporters and the working class in general along the lines of its revolutionary programme.
The making of the Bolshevik party
In 1903, these differences eventually led to a split in the RSDLP, between the faction led by Lenin, which became known as Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks led by Plekhanov, the leader of the party's older generation.
For some years though, the two factions were to co-exist within the party, carrying out their day-to-day activities. But increasingly, what had initially appeared as tactical differences regarding the way in which the party should be built, mutated into political differences over the tasks of the proletariat in the future revolution: was the proletariat to take the lead in the revolution to overthrow czarism, on the basis of its own class interests, or was it to form an alliance with the anti-czarist section of the emerging capitalist class, on the basis of watered-down political objectives which would be more acceptable for such allies? Whereas the Bolsheviks argued that the party of the proletariat should stick to defending its class interests, the Mensheviks argued for a compromise. Eventually, in 1912, the two factions split into two separate organisations and each went its own way - to the point that, when World War I broke out, in July 1914, and then again, after February 1917, they found themselves defending radically opposite perspectives for the working class.
It was the 1905 Russian revolution which first put the RSDLP and its factions to the test of history, while providing its members - and large sections of the working class - with invaluable political experience. Let's listen to Lenin, reminiscing about this 1905 revolution in a lecture he gave to young socialist students in Zürich, in January 1917, just a few weeks before the February revolution broke out in Russia:
"Prior to January 22, 1905, the revolutionary party of Russia consisted of a small group of people... Several hundred revolutionary organisers, several thousand members of local organisations, half a dozen revolutionary papers appearing not more frequently than once a month, published mainly abroad and smuggled into Russia with incredible difficulty and at the cost of many sacrifices... "Within a few months, however, the picture changed completely. The hundreds of revolutionary Social-Democrats 'suddenly' grew into thousands; the thousands became the leaders of between two and three million proletarians. The proletarian struggle produced widespread ferment, often revolutionary movements among the peasant masses, fifty to a hundred million strong; the peasant movement had its reverberations in the army and led to soldiers' revolts, to armed clashes between one section of the army and another. In this manner a colossal country, with a population of 130 million, went into the revolution... "The peculiarity of the Russian revolution is that it was a bourgeois-democratic revolution in its social content, but a proletarian revolution in its methods of struggle. It was a bourgeois-democratic revolution since its immediate aim, which it could achieve directly and with its own forces, was a democratic republic, the eight-hour day and confiscation of the immense estates of the nobility - all the measures the French bourgeois revolution in 1792-93 had almost completely achieved. "At the same time, the Russian revolution was also a proletarian revolution, not only in the sense that the proletariat was the leading force, the vanguard of the movement, but also in the sense that a specifically proletarian weapon of struggle - the strike - was the principal means of bringing the masses into motion and the most characteristic phenomenon in the wave-like rise of decisive events... "In the fire of battle, a peculiar mass organisation was formed, the famous Soviets of Workers' Deputies, comprising delegates from all factories. In several cities these Soviets of Workers' Deputies began more and more to play the part of a provisional revolutionary government, the part of organs and leaders of the uprising... "For a time several cities in Russia became something in the nature of small local "republics". The government authorities were deposed and the Soviet of Workers' Deputies actually functioned as the new government..."
The 1905 revolution lasted just a year and was eventually drowned in blood. But, within this single year, a generation of workers had gone through a whole life's worth of political experience: staging mass strikes for economic and political objectives, organising resistance against the army, exercising power through the Soviets, these new organs of workers' democracy which had emerged in the course of the revolution, and more. These workers had seen for themselves how little the anti-czarist section of the capitalist class could be trusted as an ally in fighting the regime.
Above all, despite the defeat of the revolution, the Russian working class had been able to gauge the considerable power it could wield when it used its collective strength. The all-powerful czarist regime no longer seemed invincible. From now on, its overthrow was no longer a matter of if, but a matter of when. And the memory left by the revolution in the collective consciousness of the working class was to prove decisive a decade later, when the February 1917 broke out.
Meanwhile, the RSDLP in general, and its Bolshevik faction in particular, had also gathered a considerable experience. And it had also won a considerable amount of credit and respect among the proletarian masses. As Lenin said, the party's hundreds turned into thousands. Of course, many of these activists faced a difficult time during the period which followed the defeat of the revolution. But the Bolsheviks now had developed deep roots among the ranks of the working class, where it was represented by a significant number of respected, experienced activists, who would be in a position to win rank-and-file workers to their policies, should a new revolutionary crisis break out. In that sense, the Russian working class was now equipped with the instrument it needed not only to overthrow czarism, but to take political power and free society from all class divisions.
The question of the social nature of the revolution
After 1905 and the years of dark repression, came July 1914 and the outbreak of World War 1. And with it came the betrayal of the workers' parties of the Second International, most of which chose to side with their respective capitalist classes in World War I, as did the majority of the Russian Mensheviks. As to the Bolsheviks, they immediately took an internationalist stance, stating that the Russian exploited masses had no stake in this imperialist war and every reason to oppose it.
During the nine pre-war years they had stuck to the task they had set for themselves - preparing the working class for the next revolutionary upsurge. Nevertheless, like all revolutionaries in Russia and across the world, they were completely taken by surprise when the revolution broke out in St Petersburg - which, by then, had been renamed with the more Russian-sounding name of Petrograd - on 23 February 1917.
Immediately, this event threw up a vital question: what would the social nature of this new revolution be, and what therefore, would it aim to achieve? The February revolution had started with the masses demanding the abolition of czarism because of its responsibility in the war, and, right from the beginning, the working class had taken the lead in this revolution, with soviets of workers and soldiers mushrooming all over the country. So, the Bolsheviks had to decide what political objective they should offer to the revolutionary working class.
What were the different approaches to this question? The Mensheviks stuck to their old position. Ignoring the lessons of the 1905 revolution, they claimed that semi-feudal, underdeveloped Russia should follow the same path as the Western European countries over the previous centuries: after overthrowing czarism, Russia would first have to go through a "bourgeois-democratic" stage, so that the capitalist class could develop some form of parliamentary democracy which suited its requirements. Accordingly, they threw all their weight into getting the Soviets to support the capitalist-led Provisional Government.
Leon Trotsky defended a totally opposite view. At first a member of the Menshevik faction, he had broken from them in 1904 over their tail-ending of pro-capitalist parties. Then, in 1905, he had been a leader of the St Petersburg Soviet. Subsequently, he was to work hand-in-hand with Lenin from April 1917 and then join the leadership of the Bolshevik party in July. In February 1917, he argued that the 1905 revolution had clearly demonstrated that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak, stunted and dependent both on the imperialist capitalist classes and on the protection of the czarist state, to achieve an independent "bourgeois-democratic" republic. Consequently, the working class would have to skip over the "bourgeois-democratic" stage in order to establish its own proletarian dictatorship, both against the remnants of the czarist regime and against the aspiring capitalists.
Finally, there was Lenin's position - which was the Bolsheviks' official stance. Lenin totally agreed with Trotsky, that only a revolution led by the proletariat could overthrow czarism. But unlike Trotsky, Lenin had left the question of the precise class nature of the state which would take over from the czarist regime, partly open. To take into account the fact that the industrial proletariat was only a tiny minority compared to the country's huge peasant majority, Lenin had argued that the future Russian revolution would produce a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry".
This formulation could be open to interpretation. However, as Trotsky explained, in his pamphlet "The lessons of October": "This formula, in itself, as future development showed, could acquire meaning only as a transition toward the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry. Lenin's formulation of the problem, revolutionary and dynamic through and through, was completely and irreconcilably counterposed to the Mensheviks' pattern, according to which Russia could pretend only to a repetition of the history of the advanced nations, with the bourgeoisie in power and the social democrats in opposition."
But not everyone in the Bolshevik leadership understood Lenin's anticipation of the future in this way. In the aftermath of February 23rd 1917, the Soviets had created a situation of dual power - on the one hand, the capitalist-dominated Provisional Government and, on the other, the proletariat organised in the Soviets. Nevertheless, in the absence of Lenin who was then in exile in Switzerland, the majority of the Bolshevik leaders, says Trotsky, "laid the stress not upon the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry in Lenin's formula, but upon its democratic character as opposed to its socialist character... This could only mean that in Russia, a backward country, only a democratic [bourgeois] revolution was conceivable... But such a formulation of the question slipped inevitably into Menshevism... Under the actual conditions of revolution, to hold a position of supporting such a "democracy", pushed to its logical conclusion - opposing socialism as 'being premature' - meant, in politics, to shift from a proletarian to a petty-bourgeois position. It meant going over to the position of the left wing of national revolution... The method was essentially... to 'exert pressure' on the ruling capitalist class, a 'pressure' so calculated as to remain within the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime."
On his arrival from Switzerland, at the beginning of April, Lenin immediately put the record straight. In his "April theses" he wrote: "The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution - which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie - to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants..." And, to drive his point home, he added: "No support for the Provisional Government.. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding 'demand' that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government."
But even after his position had been reasserted in the clearest possible terms, Lenin still had a fight on his hands in order to convince even his old comrades in the Bolshevik leadership to stop their attempt at convincing the Provisional Government to "cease to be an imperialist government" - meaning, of course, that it should withdraw from the war. But we will come back to this point later.
The role of the Soviets in the revolution...
Before going further into the role played by the Bolshevik party in the revolution, it is worth saying something about the Soviets themselves, what they were and how they operated. The American socialist John Reed arrived late in Russia, in September 1917, but early enough to observe the operation of the revolution. This is how he described the Soviets:
"A Soviet is based directly upon the workers in the factories and the peasants in the field. At first the delegates of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Soviets were elected according to rules which varied with the needs and population of various localities. In some villages the peasants chose 1 delegate for each 50 voters. Soldiers in garrison were given a certain number of delegates for each regiment, regardless of its strength; the army in the field, however, had a different method of electing their Soviets. As for the workers in the great cities, they soon found out that their Soviets became unwieldy unless the delegates were limited to 1 for each 500. In the same way, the first two All-Russian Congresses of Soviets were roughly based upon 1 delegate for each 25,000 voters, but in fact the delegates represented constituencies of various sizes.
"Until February 1918 anybody could vote for delegates to the Soviets. Even had the bourgeoisie organised and demanded representation in the Soviets, they would have been given it. For example, during the regime of the Provisional Government there was bourgeois representation in the Petrograd Soviet - a delegate of the Union of Professional Men which comprised doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.."
Reed then went on to describe the operation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies as follows:
"It consisted of about 1200 deputies, and in normal circumstances held a plenary session every two weeks. In the meantime, it elected a Central Executive Committee of 110 members, based upon party proportionality, and this Central Executive Committee added to itself by invitation delegates from the central committees of all the political parties, from the central committees of the professional unions, the factory shop committees, and other democratic organisations.
"Besides the big City Soviet, there were also the Rayon, or Ward, Soviets. These were made up of the deputies elected from each ward to the City Soviet, and administered their part of the city. Naturally, in some wards there were no factories, and therefore normally no representation of the ward either in the City Soviet or in Ward Soviets of their own. But the Soviet system is extremely flexible, and if the cooks and waiters, or the street sweepers, or the courtyard servants, or the cab drivers of that ward organised and demanded representation, they were allowed delegates.
"Elections of delegates are based on proportional representation, which means that the political parties are represented in exact proportion to the number of voters in the whole city. And it is political parties and programmes which are voted for - not candidates. The candidates are designated by the central committees of the political parties, which can replace them by other party members. Also the delegates are not elected for any particular term, but are subject to recall at any time. No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution the popular will changes with great rapidity."
The Soviets were both decision-making bodies and, in so far as their decisions only affected their constituency, they also organised and supervised the implementation of their decisions, organising day to day life. One of their first tasks was to guard and defend their revolution. To this end they had to arm the working class itself. Trotsky elaborates further in his "History of the Russian Revolution":
"Deriving its tradition from 1905, the Workers' Guard was reborn with the February revolution... Armed companies of workers formed a constituent part of the militia. Kornilov, while Commander of the Petrograd military district, asserted that during the days of the overthrow of the monarchy, 30,000 revolvers and 40,000 rifles disappeared from the military stores. Over and above that, a considerable quantity of weapons came into the possession of the people during the disarming of the police and by the hands of friendly regiments. Nobody responded to the demand to restore the weapons. A revolution teaches you to value a rifle...
"The possession of rifles by the workers alarmed the possessing classes from the very beginning, since it shifted the correlation of forces sharply to the advantage of the factory."
This was particularly an issue in the provinces, because it changed the balance of forces fully in favour of the workers. Again, from Trotsky:
"In the provincial industrial regions, however, a reinforcement of the Workers' Guard would involve a complete change of all relations, not only within the given plant but all around it. Armed workers would remove managers and engineers, and even arrest them... In the Urals, with their rich tradition of guerilla fighting in 1905, companies of the Red Guard led by old veterans established law and order. Armed workers almost unnoticeably dissolved the old government and replaced it with soviet institutions. Sabotage on the part of the property owners and administrators shifted to the workers the task of protecting the plants - the machines, stores, reserves of coal and raw materials. Roles were here interchanged: the worker would tightly grip his rifle in defence of the factory in which he saw the source of his power. In this way elements of a workers' dictatorship were inaugurated in the factories and districts some time before the proletariat as a whole seized the state power."
... and the role of Factory Shop Committees
Next to the Soviets, there were other organs of workers' democracy which played an important role in running society after the February revolution. This was the case of the Factory Shop Committees whose functions John Reed described as follows:
"The owners and administrators of many industrial plants either left or were driven out by the workers. In the government factories, where labour had long been at the mercy of irresponsible bureaucrats appointed by the Czar, this was particularly the case. Without superintendents, foremen, and in many cases engineers and bookkeepers, the workers found themselves faced with the alternative of keeping the works going or of starving. A committee was elected, one delegate from each "shop" or department; this committee attempted to run the factory. Of course, at first this plan seemed hopeless. The functions of the different departments could be coordinated in this way, but the lack of technical training on the part of the workers produced some grotesque results until these committees actually started hiring the expertise they needed - when they could."
However the factory owners then organised to get back into control of their plants to the point where they sabotaged production. This forced the Factory Shop Committees to take further responsibility.
"The owners attempted to falsify the books, to conceal orders; the Factory Shop Committee was forced to find out ways to control the books. The owners tried to strip the works. So, the committee had to rule that nothing should go in or out of the plant without permission. When the factory was going to close down for lack of fuel, raw material, or orders, the Factory Shop Committee had to send men half across Russia to the mines, or down into the Caucasus for oil, to Crimea for cotton; and agents had to be sent out by the workers to sell the product. In the breakdown of the railroads, committee agents had to make agreements with the Railwaymen's Union for transportation of freight. To guard against strike-breakers, the committee had to take over the function of hiring and discharging workers.
"Thus the Factory Shop Committee was the creation of Russian anarchy, forced by necessity to learn how to manage industry, so that when the time came the Russian workers could take over actual control with little friction. So it was that all over Russia the workers were getting the necessary education in the fundamentals of industrial production, and even distribution, so that when the November Revolution came they could take their places in the machinery of workers' control."
A democratic relationship with the proletariat
For the Bolsheviks, the Soviets were the backbone of the new social order that the revolution was to bring about. Trotsky, writing in his "History of the Russian Revolution" said that: "The Soviets are organs of preparation of the masses for insurrection, organs of insurrection, and after the victory organs of government."
As to Lenin, he spelt out his views on the Soviets in the objectives that he proposed to the Bolsheviks in his April Theses: "Not a parliamentary republic - to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers' Deputies would be a retrograde step - but a republic of Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom."
More importantly for the development of the revolution itself, it was, to a large extent, through the Soviets, the Factory Shop Committees and the other organs of workers' democracy, that the Bolshevik party measured the mood of the workers and assessed their reactions to events or policies. And it was in front of these organs that they developed their analysis of the situation as it evolved and tried to win over workers to the policies they were proposing.
Indeed, the Bolsheviks knew that they could not substitute themselves for the working class. It was the working class which would have to consciously act upon its own convictions in order to seize power and eventually start transforming society. The idea that it was possible to by-pass the necessary process of explaining to workers the whys and hows of a course of action and winning their endorsement for it, was a delusion. And any attempt to impose policies on workers, even under the pressure of time, would be self-defeating.
So, time and again, Lenin kept repeating to his Bolshevik comrades that the job of the party was to "explain and explain again and explain always." His April Theses had already stressed this fundamental task. Lenin first acknowledged the fact that, "in most of the Soviets of Workers' Deputies our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority, as against a bloc of all the petty-bourgeois opportunist elements... who have yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie and spread that influence among the proletariat." But instead of complaining about the Bolsheviks being in a minority, instead of proposing to change policies in order to make themselves more "popular" among Soviet deputies, he argued: "The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers' Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, our task is to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses. As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers' Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience."
That being said, noted Trotsky, "the Soviets by themselves do not settle the question [of conquering power]. They may serve different goals according to the programme and leadership. The Soviets receive their programme from the party. Whereas the Soviets in revolutionary conditions... comprise the whole class with the exception of its altogether backward, inert or demoralised strata, the revolutionary party represents the brain of the class. The problem of conquering the power can be solved only by a definite combination of party with Soviets - or with other mass organisations more or less equivalent to Soviets."
Somewhere else, Trotsky puts this same idea in another way which adds another dimension to the relationship between the Bolshevik party and the Soviets: "The party set the Soviets in motion, the Soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels - a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme - you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses - omitting the medium-sized wheel of the Soviets - would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion."
In other words, to summarize Trotsky's points, there is nothing magical in the Soviets, which are no more capable of spontaneously formulating the correct policies which are needed at a particular point in time than the working class as a whole is. In so far as it crystallises in itself the collective experience of the working class as a whole and the lessons that need to be learnt from it, the party has the means to provide the Soviets with a programme they can use - provided, as Lenin would have said, that party activists "explain and explain again and explain always", in order to convince the Soviet deputies.
If the party does succeed in winning the support of the Soviets to its policies, then the Soviets will be set in motion to act upon these policies. The Soviet deputies will pass on the message to the workers they represent and they will convince these workers to support these policies and to act upon them. But should the party try to address itself directly to the working class in order to achieve a similar result, it is likely to find that it is trying to bite off more than it can chew - and to fail anyway.
If, on the other hand, the party fails to convince the Soviet deputies of its policies, another party - with other policies - may be more successful and it may manage to get the Soviet deputies and the workers they influence to act against the interests of the working class they represent. This was, in fact, the problem faced by the Bolsheviks throughout the period in which, partly due to the dominating influence of the petty-bourgeois peasant soldiers in the Soviets, and their democratic illusions, the Soviets were behind the Mensheviks and other parties which supported the capitalist-led Provisional Government.
How the proletariat learns through experience and action
In politics, as in many other spheres of activity, there is no better way of understanding a political process and what should be done about it, than by directly experiencing its impact and consequences and trying to change its course. One of the main problems that the Bolsheviks had to resolve between February and October had to do with the illusions that the working class masses had in the various anti-czarist parties and the Provisional government they supported.
Giving arguments, explaining and trying to convince was not always enough to get the proletariat to abandon its illusions and open its eyes - in particular when it came to vital issues such as the war or the land reform. In these cases, there was no way around the need for workers to go through a number of experiences and learn from them. The problem for the Bolsheviks was that some of these experiences were potentially dangerous, and so as much as possible, they had to find ways of limiting the damage resulting from these experiences - damage which, in some cases, could have affected the course of the revolution itself.
On the issue of the war, for quite a long period of time, it was hard for the proletariat to understand that the czarist system was not the only potential beneficiary from the imperialist war. Just as it was hard for the proletariat to get to grips with the fact that there were political parties, including among those which had a long record of fighting czarism, which were just as determined to continue the war on the side of the Allies as the Czar itself and for very similar reasons. Indeed this was all about these parties' fundamental choices. Those who were determined to see a bourgeois government of some sort in Russia, also wanted this future government to be recognised by the rich countries as a valued political and trading partner. But in order to achieve this, they needed the Provisional Government to demonstrate its willingness to play by the rules set by the imperialist camp chosen by the Czar - which meant, in particular, fulfilling the commitments made by the czarist regime to its imperialist partners in crime. And this, obviously, meant, as much as possible, remaining actively involved in the war.
In fact, the truth only really dawned on the majority of the proletariat, after the two attempted offensives on the front, launched by the 2nd Provisional Government led by Kerensky, in June and July, especially after the second, because of its almost immediate collapse at the cost of huge casualties. Of course, the masses' suspicion resulting from these military offensives were compounded by Kerensky's proposal to ban Soldiers' Committees from operating in the army, as they had been ever since the end of February.
But it was the attempted military coup staged by general Kornilov, the commander-in-chief appointed by Kerensky himself in September, that was probably the event which convinced a much larger number of workers and peasants that the Bolsheviks had been right all along in their warnings against the Provisional Government's war plans. In fact this coup turned out to have been, initially at least, encouraged by Kerensky and some of his ministers. In the eyes of the proletariat, this made not only Kerensky, but all the so-called "democratic" parties which had supported his government, including the Mensheviks, accomplices of the Russian military. Kornilov had aspired to set up a military dictatorship, to drown the Soviets in blood, and force the Russian army to intensify the war effort. Out of this realisation came a sudden surge of support for the Bolsheviks against the parties who had been supporting Kerensky.
A similar slow learning curve took place on the question of the land reform, when the first Provisional Government under prince Lvov, appeared to yield to the peasants' call for the setting up of Land Commissions in the rural areas, which would organise a census of the big landowners' lands which could and should be redistributed to landless peasants. Additionally, Lvov had promised that the government would prepare a land reform project in accordance with the recommendation of the Land Committees.
For the urban workers, Lvov's announcement, which was made with all due fanfare, sounded like a good deal for the landless peasants and evidence of the fact that Lvov was as liberal and radical as he was trying to make out. And they were not very convinced by the relentless warnings issued by the Bolsheviks, denouncing Lvov's announcement as fool's gold. But, eventually, the news came to Petrograd that in some villages, the big landowners had set up these Land Commissions themselves, and excluded all other potential participants, while in other villages, the landowners had simply got the police to arrest the members of the newly set up Land Commissions. Then and only then, did the workers - and many peasants, for that matter - remember the warnings issued by the Bolsheviks and finally give them the credit they were due.
On other occasions, it was not the illusions of the proletariat that the Bolsheviks had to contend with, but its impatience. This was the case, in particular, in July, when, following Kerensky's first offensive on the front, the Bolsheviks' credit increased significantly in Petrograd and other big towns. At this point, the Petrograd Soviet called a demonstration to demand an end to the war. Workers and soldiers came to the demonstration with their weapons, brandishing banners displaying the Bolsheviks' demand that all power should be transferred to the Soviets. At that point, the protesters' anger had reached boiling point and everyone was talking about insurrection.
Except that it was too early. Most Soviets had not reached the same level of mobilisation and maturity as the Soviets of the big industrial towns. Even in Petrograd the balance of forces was not yet ripe for an insurrection to be victorious. And it was clear that Kerensky was looking for a pretext to launch a wave of repression against the revolutionaries. But the protesters were convinced that they could win.
Faced with this situation, the Bolsheviks had to make a choice. They could either take part in the planned demonstration and try to avoid an armed confrontation whose consequences were likely to be catastrophic, with the risk that Kerensky was likely to use this opportunity to unleash his loyal troops against the most radical elements of the revolution, particularly against the Bolsheviks. Or else the Bolsheviks could call off the demonstration, or distance themselves from it, thereby taking the risk of cutting themselves off from the most radicalised section of the Petrograd proletariat, without even the guarantee that this would stop Kerensky from resorting to repression.
Eventually the Bolsheviks chose the first option. Though there were many casualties, they succeeded in avoiding a bloodbath. But, as they expected, the Bolshevik party was immediately banned, its papers were closed down, its activists arbitrarily arrested, often beaten up and injured, sometimes murdered. Its leaders were either imprisoned, like Trotsky, or forced to go underground in neighbouring Finland, like Lenin.
Fortunately, Kerensky did not yet feel strong enough to physically eliminate the vanguard of the Petrograd proletariat. But, while the most militant workers did realise, through this experience, that they needed to gather more strength, before an insurrection could be put on the agenda, the Bolshevik party paid dearly for this. And Kerensky's commander-in-chief, general Kornilov, was able to have a long enough respite to regroup his loyal forces and prepare his September coup attempt.
The road to power
Finally, after Kornilov's attempted putsch collapsed, five days after it had started, the masses gave full credit for his defeat to the Bolshevik party. Because the Bolsheviks had warned against the threat of such a counter-revolutionary coup long before. But also, because they had been at the forefront of organising the counter-offensive. First the railway workers had successfully prevented Kornilov's reinforcements from reaching Petrograd by pulling up the tracks. And then the 25,000 or so Soviet Red Guards, which the Bolsheviks had proposed to organise, had successfully beaten back Kornilov's elite troops.
By the end of September, the Bolshevik party was experiencing a rapid growth in its membership and support. Two days after Kornilov's defeat, it won the majority in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. A few days later, Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Within a month, on 20th October, an inter-party assembly, known as the "pre-parliament", which was meant to replace Kerensky's government, attempted to by-pass the authority of the Petrograd Soviet altogether, prompting the resignation of the Bolsheviks and some of their allies. On the 22nd, in accordance with a Bolshevik proposal, the Petrograd Soviet decided to set up a military committee to prepare for an insurrection and Trotsky was elected to chair it.
During this period, the political tension and polarisation were reaching a climax, together with the proletariat's support for the Bolshevik party and its policy in favour of transferring all power to the Soviets. For Lenin, the time for insurrection had come. Its pros and cons, aims and means, were being discussed publicly, in the streets and in the Soviet and Bolshevik press.
This is how Trotsky described this period of feverish preparations for the insurrection, in his "History of the Russian Revolution":
"'Drill in the art of handling a rifle,' says the worker Skorinko, 'formerly carried on in flats and tenements, was now brought out into the light and air, into the parks, the boulevards'. 'The shops were turned into camps,' says another worker, Rakitov... 'The worker would stand at his bench with knapsack on his back and rifle beside him.' Very soon all those working in the bomb factory except the old Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were enrolled in the Guard. After the whistle, all would draw up in the court for drill. 'Side by side with a bearded worker you would see a boy apprentice, and both of them attentively listening to the instructor ...' Thus while the old czarist army was disintegrating, the foundation of a future Red Army was being laid in the factories.
"An absence of immediate practical aims combined with the lack of weapons, caused an ebbing of workers from the Red Guard, but this only for a short interval. The foundation cadres had been laid down solidly in every plant; firm bonds had been established between the different companies. These cadres now knew from experience that they had serious reserves which could be brought to their feet in case of danger. "The going over of the Soviet to the Bolsheviks again radically changed the position of the Red Guard. From being persecuted or tolerated, it now became an official instrument of the Soviet already reaching for the power. The workers now often found, by themselves, a way to weapons, asking only the sanction of the Soviet... The preparation of an insurrection was openly placed on the order of the day. For a month before the revolution in scores of shops and factories of Petrograd an intense military activity was in progress - chiefly rifle practice. By the middle of October the interest in weapons had risen to a new height. In certain factories almost every last man was enrolled in a company. "The workers were more and more impatiently demanding weapons from the Soviet, but the weapons were infinitely fewer than the hands stretched out for them. 'I came to Smolny every day,' relates the engineer, Kozmin, 'and observed how both before and after the sitting of the Soviet, workers and sailors would come up to Trotsky, offering and demanding weapons for the arming of the workers, making reports as to how and where these weapons were distributed, and putting the question: 'But when does business begin?' The impatience was very great '... "Formally the Red Guard remained non-party. But the nearer the final day came, the more prominent were the Bolsheviks. They constituted the nucleus of every company; they controlled the commanding staff and the communications with other plants and districts... "However, even now, on the eve of the insurrection, the ranks of the Guard were not numerous. On the 16th, Uritzky, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, estimated the workers' army of Petrograd at 40,000 bayonets. The figure is probably exaggerated. The resources of weapons remained still very limited. "On the 22nd, there was held an all-city conference of the Red Guard, its hundred delegates representing about twenty thousand fighters. Big factories like the Putilov had their own divisions. Special technical commands - sappers, bicycles, telegraphers, machine-gunners and artillery men - were recruited in the corresponding factories, and attached to the riflemen - or else acted independently according to the nature of the given task. The entire commanding staff was elected. There was no risk in this: all were volunteers here and knew each other well."
From the previous quote, the role of the Bolsheviks may seem to have been largely technical. But, of course, their political role in choosing the moment for the insurrection was at least as important. Here is what Trotsky has to say on this side of the Bolsheviks' preparations:
"... if it is true that an insurrection cannot be evoked at will, and that nevertheless in order to win it must be organised in advance, then the revolutionary leaders are presented with a task of correct diagnosis. They must feel out the growing insurrection and supplement it with a conspiracy...
"[The insurrection] was consciously prepared by the Bolshevik Party. The problem of correctly seizing the moment to give the signal for the attack was thus laid upon the Bolshevik staff. 'Moment' here is not to be taken too literally as meaning a definite day and hour...
"Between the moment when an attempt to summon an insurrection must inevitably prove premature and lead to a revolutionary miscarriage, and the moment when a favourable situation must be considered hopelessly missed, there exists a certain period - it may be measured in weeks, and sometimes in a few months - in the course of which an insurrection may be carried out with more or less chance of success. To identify this comparatively short period and then choose the definite moment - now in the more accurate sense of the very day and hour - for the last blow, constitutes the most responsible task of the revolutionary leaders. It can with full justice be called the key problem, for it unites the policy of revolution with the technique of insurrection - and it is needless to add that insurrection, like war, is a continuation of politics with other instruments.
"Intuition and experience are necessary for revolutionary leadership, just as for all other kinds of creative activity. But much more than that is needed. An epoch of mighty historic upheavals has no use for witch-doctors. Here experience, even illumined by intuition, is not enough. Here you must have a synthetic doctrine comprehending the interactions of the chief historic forces. Here you must have a materialistic method permitting you to discover, behind the moving shadows of programme and slogan, the actual movement of social bodies."
The revolutionary communist party we need
So, we can see what made the November 7th insurrection a complete success - and a virtually bloodless one, at that. Its timing, the practical preparations over the previous month or so, and the much longer moral and political preparation for it. This was always an integral part of the Bolsheviks' work - because they saw themselves first and foremost as a revolutionary party, whose task it was, precisely, to prepare the proletariat for the revolutionary seizure of power.
Throughout these 9 months of revolution, the Bolshevik party proved capable of guiding the proletariat, helping it to build up its self-confidence, but above all its understanding of where it was coming from and where it was going.
Why did the Bolshevik party succeed, where so many others seem to have failed? First of all, because, there is no example of a comparable party being confronted with a revolutionary explosion elsewhere. Some might say that its success was due to the remarkable qualities of individuals leaders like Lenin and Trotsky. And they definitely played an important and, possibly, a decisive role. But they, themselves, were primarily by-products of the political history of their party.
At the same time, it would make no sense to present a rosy picture of the Bolshevik party. It was anything but rosy. As mentioned earlier, reformist policies seem to have attracted some of its most prominent leaders, like Zinoviev and Kamenev, who put all their efforts into fighting Lenin's opposition to their tail-ending of reformist, pro-capitalist parties. Later on, again, on the eve of the insurrection, the same Kamenev and Zinoviev, flanked this time by Stalin, fought Lenin and Trotsky over their proposal to prepare for an insurrection.
The strength of the Bolshevik party, therefore, was certainly not to have an invariably competent, infallible leadership. Its strength lay in three things. First of all, it was able to select within its own ranks a leadership which, collectively, was able to make up for the failures, shortcomings and mistakes of its individual members. Secondly, all its members had a common political education. This allowed them to understand the ins and outs of the decisions that needed to be made, thereby, for instance, allowing Lenin to rely upon the political understanding of the party rank-and-file in his polemics with the likes of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin. And thirdly, all its members shared a common understanding of the tasks of the party, as an instrument for the working class in its struggle for power, and not as an apparatus which uses the working class as cannon-fodder to fulfil its own political agenda.
Such is the heritage that the 1917 revolution has left us. One hundred years on, in a capitalist world which is rotting on its feet, incapable as it is of preventing its own contradictions from causing more and more devastating economic crises and wars across the planet, we know that there will be new revolutionary crises. We do not know where they will break out, let alone when. And probably, when this happens, we will be caught unawares, just as the Bolsheviks were in January 1905 and in February 1917. Nor do we know through which intermediary revolutionary stages the proletariat will have to go before being able to overthrow the capitalist order, once and for all.
But what we do know is that the only force capable of ridding society of this rotting capitalist system is the conscious mobilisation of the working class and that, if the proletarian revolution is to be victorious, it will have to spread internationally - because it is only on a worldwide scale that the construction of a communist, classless society can be conceivable.
And what we do know as well, because this is the main lesson of the Russian revolution, is that when this happens, the working class will need to have prepared itself to play its historical role and that this preparation requires a revolutionary party to be built. By this we mean a party which does not fall for the illusions of parliamentary democracy, let alone for its lucrative perks, even when it uses elections as a platform for its revolutionary programme. And it has to be a party which, like the Bolshevik party, seeks to build deep roots within the ranks of the proletariat. For this it has to have the constant preoccupation of using every opportunity to prepare the working class for the seizure of power and the extension of the future revolution to the rest of the world.
Today, it is our task, as revolutionary communists, to build this revolutionary party. And we invite all those who want to see the end of capitalism, to join us in this task today, because tomorrow it may well be too late. It is on the existence of this revolutionary party that the future of the working class will depend - as well as the future of mankind.