Archive | May, 2017

Issue LX: Red October (part 3)

31 May

Passport to the Finland Station

Stranded in Switzerland for years, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin saw his chance. He immediately began writing his party platform and planning his dramatic return to the former Russian Empire.  The February Revolution, having overthrown the tsar, had incompletely resolved the issue of who ruled Russia.

On one side, rested the Provisional Government composed of certain members of the Duma (parliament).  This government represented the Russian bourgeoisie of liberals and some moderate socialists.  This moderate class had the revolution thrust into their hands in a way they could not avoid the way they did in 1905.  They tried to work with the former nobility and tsarist authorities to maintain control of the nation.  They pledged to the Allies that they would continue to fight in World War I.  An imperial war by the tsar had become a “democratic” and national war by the Russian people.  It was led by Alexander Kerensky.

On the opposite side stood the soviets of workers, soldiers, and sailors.  These workers’ councils practiced “democracy from below.”  Each military unit and factory would elect representatives to these councils in all the major cities.  The most important soviet was the Petrograd Soviet.  The Petrograd Soviet decreed in Order No. 1 that soldiers should follow orders from their officers and the Provisional Government only if they did not contradict the Petrograd Soviet.

Lenin described this situation as dual power.  Who ruled Russia?  The soviets of workers and soldiers or the Provisional Government of liberals and moderate socialists?  As all revolutions end in changing who controls state power, Lenin argued that the revolution had not been settled.

But first he had to get out of Zurich.

April Theses

V.I. Lenin negotiated with the German government to be placed on train to Russia.  Germany, still at war with Russia, bordered both Switzerland and Russia.  He negotiated safe passage through Germany on a sealed train that would make no stops and would have no passport checks.  From the German coast he would take a ferry and then train to St. Petersburg.  As an antiwar radical, Germany liked the idea of sending someone like Lenin who would promote ending the war on the Eastern Front, even if they did not care for his revolutionary socialism.      

Upon arrival at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg, Lenin was greeted by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike.  With the overthrow of the tsar, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks worked together again to support the Provisional Government and continue the war. Even if Russia would not aim to annex land, they would defend the nation from German attack.  The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, could now be mended with Lenin’s arrival and his support for the bourgeois revolution and the Provisional Government.

Instead, the fiery speech he gave shocked everyone.  The essentials of his remarks are summarized in the April Theses.  His ideas, which were widely condemned initially, eventually formed the nucleus of the party position.  What were the April Theses?  The best summary comes in the form of popular slogans and posters from the spring and summer of 1917.

  • Bread, Land, Peace – food for the workers, re-distribution of land to the peasants from the big landowners, end the war
  • Turn the Imperialist War into a Civil War – do not fight Germany on behalf of France and England, negotiate an immediate peace treaty, fight the bourgeoisie within Russian society
  • All Power to the Soviets – end the system of dual power by overthrowing the Provisional Government in the name of the soviets of workers and soldiers
  • Fraternize with the Enemy – do no fight “enemy” soldiers anymore, socialize with them instead, rebel against officers who want to continue the war

This did not go over well at all with party members, Bolshevik or Menshevik.

Revolutionaries denounced Lenin as a madman with his calls for ending the war, overthrowing the government, and immediately moving from parliamentary government to a workers’ state based on the soviets. Lenin denounced the Mensheviks (who controlled the soviets and the Provisional Government) as opportunists and social chauvinists who did not really believe in creating a government by and for the working class.  He teamed up with Leon Trotsky, recently returned from Canada, to push for proletarian revolution as the only way to end the war.

But his once radical ideas appeared to make sense to many as the war continued under the Provisional Government which started a new offensive.  The offensive ended in humiliating defeat.  The Bolsheviks began to gain strength in the soviets and the countryside.  By June, workers were beginning to rebel.  In July, they went on strike marching for “All Power to the Soviets.”  Kerensky’s government shot them down by the hundreds and ordered Lenin’s arrest.  Lenin went into hiding while Trotsky was arrested.

The Provisional Government then suffered an attempted right-wing coup by General Kornilov.  Kerensky had to release Trotsky and Bolshevik leaders from jail and then arm them to defend the city from the General Kornilov.  The debacle made the Provisional Government look even worse.  Bolshevik membership soared and soon they controlled a majority in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets.  Lenin returned from hiding in Finland for the Congress of the Soviets.  After a debate, the soviet executive committee voted to overthrow the Provisional Government and assume state power in October.

Red October

The Bolshevik Revolution began with soldiers refusing to follow orders.  The Bolsheviks then quietly took positions around the city.  The battleship Aurora then fired a blank shot to announce the start of the uprising.  Finally, the Winter Palace of the tsars was stormed and the Provisional Government arrested.  The world’s first socialist revolution had begun.

What happened next is extremely long and complicated.  The Bolshevik Revolution led to the Russian Civil War between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army which did not end until 1922.  Lenin and Trotsky began immediate peace talks with Germany while the United States, Japan, and Britain tried to support the White Army.  Despite all odds, Trotsky’s Red Army defeated all parties.  Lenin declared the name of the new nation the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union.

He and Trotsky hoped for a similar revolution in Germany. The Kaiser fell but the German soviets failed to win state power.  Isolated from the world, the Soviet Union never benefited from socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist nations.  Instead this backward nation had to bear the brunt of socialism for decades….. and was hugely unsuccessful on the whole.

Lenin had a stroke and then died soon after in 1924. The Soviet Union lasted until 1991.  All sorts of failures, disasters, and crimes occurred during the USSR’s existence including the ignominious reign of Josef Stalin.  In any case, the theoretical arguments I began this series with remain relevant to understanding why or how the Soviet Union failed.

Did Russia need a phase of liberal capitalist development? Did Lenin rush the revolution when he saw the soviets re-form?  Did the failure of revolution in Germany push Russia into a constantly defensive position?  Did the long and brutal civil war prevent formation of democracy?  Was repression and dictatorship always in the genes of the Bolshevik Party from the start or is it all Stalin’s fault?  Should Lenin have relied on the peasants or waited until the nation became majority urban?  Was Marx wrong to assume most people would become urban industrial workers under capitalism?

All of these questions are of great importance and debate, but now I feel, dear reader, that you will be ready to argue this history with the basic points in mind on this centenary. Were they all heroes, villains, or just 100 years too early?

Issue LX: Boarding the Train (part 2)

18 May

Cutting in Line

Marx and Engels predicted that liberal revolutions led by bourgeois merchants, lawyers, and the professional middle classes would end the restrictions on capitalism by the nobility and church. Human rights and parliamentary democracies would be established. These parliaments would emphasize human rights, political equality, re-distribution of large estates, and the rule of law. The growth of capitalism would plant the seeds of the next revolution by the creation of a large industrial working class.

The United States had two bourgeois revolutions. The American War of Independence separated the thirteen colonies from Great Britain, ending British hereditary feudal aristocracy, and established a Constitution and Bill of Rights. The American Civil War ended slavery and extended liberty to all citizens in the United States and eliminated the South’s feudal social system and broke up the grand planter estates for re-distribution. The Russian Empire in comparison had nothing like these revolutions on the eve of World War I. The Russian socialists were not even thinking of socialist revolution…. they were still waiting for a capitalist one!

In Russia, the Middle Ages had never really ended in any real way. Russia opposed the French Revolution and fought Napoleon’s reforms until his defeat at the Battle of Borodino and eventually Waterloo. Serfdom was not officially abolished until 1861 but without the large-scale land redistribution and public education that spread throughout the American South after the Civil War. The Russian Orthodox Church had incredible power, and the tsar was seen as God’s representative on Earth. There was no limitations on his power. No Magna Carta, no Parliament, no Cabinet, and no freedom of the press.

Military needs pressed the nation to modernize somewhat. The Russian Empire did begin limited industrial modernization after the abolition of serfdom by creating the trans-Siberian railroad to connect the east and west coast of Russia. St. Petersburg and Moscow developed large factories. But most of the population still lived in rural squalor under the oppression of big aristocratic landowners.

But after the shock defeat of Russia by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War led to an awakening by the Russian people. In the Russian Revolution of 1905, the people rebelled against the tsar’s imbecilic management of the war. Many members of the Navy rebelled as well. Workers formed work councils called soviets. Masses of people marched against the tsar and protested for more freedom and a parliament. The government responded with bullets and police brutality. The police crushed the revolt.

Yes, a weak Duma (parliament) was created. But it was mostly ignored. At the cusp of the revolution succeeding, the middle classes and industrialists failed to overthrow the tsar. They feared the workers more than the aristocracy. And especially the soviets. Many revolutionaries fled the country.

So again, why did the first socialist revolution happen in Russia when it never even had its liberal revolution? Probably because of revolutionary V.I. Lenin.

Lenin in Switzerland

The great response of the left was to fight amongst each other.

V.I. Lenin, a lawyer and son of small town teacher fled to Switzerland. He was a leading member of the Russian Social Democratic Party but split the party into two factions over some obscure issue. He called his group the Bolsheviks (majority) and his opposition the Mensheviks (minority), even though he had the smaller group.

All radicals continued to write and publish and smuggle banned literature back into Russia. Many performed union activities and promoted the socialist cause to the workers. All of this was illegal and highly dangerous.

In a neutral country, Lenin watched as the great powers began a march towards World War I. Other European nations had expanded overseas and divided up Africa and Asia. Now with increasing nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, the Continent was building up for a global conflagration. Lenin mostly wrote and observed in these years of exile. He argued that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism and that the search for increased profits left to imperialism abroad. Now that the world was divided up, the only thing left was for the imperialist powers to attack each other for the spoils of empire. War was inevitably a consequence of capitalism.

What shocked Lenin was the behavior of the many socialist and labor parties that constituted the Second International. All of these parties pledged to oppose international war because war led to working class people fighting and killing working class people of other nationalities. Yet despite their international pledges of class solidarity, the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party, and the French Socialist Party all voted for authorizing war in their parliaments.

And the war came. Russia supported the Allies of Great Britain, France, and Italy against Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary. Imperial Russia performed disastrously on the Eastern Front with conscripted peasants. Tsar Nicholas II took charge of the war himself and performed even worse than the generals. Food was short, and civilians, soldiers, and sailors began to rebel. Strikes became increasingly common in the capital of St. Petersburg (called Petrograd during WWI). Lenin’s and the other hardline socialists looked increasingly prophetic by 1917.

Finally in February 1917 (O.S.), the women of Petrograd went on strike for food and an end to the war on International Woman’s Day. They marched from factory to factory and told the workers inside to put their tools down and come out on strike until the tsar abdicated. Hundreds of thousands joined. This time, the police did not shoot the protestors. The strike widened until it even the soldiers and sailors refused to fight for the tsar and against the people. The Petrograd Soviet of workers (and now soldiers and sailors) re-formed spontaneously.

The Duma was paralyzed. The tsar, as usual, was paralyzed. Tsarist symbols were torn down. Finally, the Duma asked the tsar to step down. He abdicated, and with no acceptable successor, the Provisional Government was proclaimed. After three centuries, Romanov rule ended in Russia forever.

Excitedly, V.I. Lenin planned his return to Russia.

Issue LX: Prelude to the Revolution

10 May

One hundred years ago last month, revolutionary V.I. Lenin boarded a train in Switzerland and headed to St. Petersburg, Russia to begin the second phase of the Russian Revolution. Due to the centennial of World War I and the October Revolution, I felt that a summary of the events 1917 would benefit readers.  Since this is a long topic, it will be multi-post report.  In this post, I will summarize the backdrop leading to World War I and the theories behind the Russian Revolution.

The World of Yesterday

At the start of the World War I in 1914, Europe had undergone a long stretch of (mostly) peace and (mostly) prosperity and development.  From the 1815 defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo until 1914, a conservative consensus developed by the victors at the Congress of Vienna more or less held sway for almost a century.  After Napoleon, the internal challenges of industrialization, reform, and revolution preoccupied Europe.

In fact, the French Revolution kickstarted the process in Continental Europe by overthrowing the ancien régime in 1792.  By killing the king and royalty and even banning the Catholic Church, French revolutionaries ended the centuries-old system where one’s birth determined one’s place in the social order for life.  Instead, a system of merit and one’s accomplishments would determine your role in society.  The Revolution established a system of Grand Schools (grandes écoles) to open up education and government jobs in the military, science, engineering, and civil service to the public instead of passing these out to unqualified nobility.  Sounds great right?

Napoleon’s conquest of Europe allowed him to spread this model across the Continent.  His Napoleonic Code codified this in many nation’s legal systems.  Ending the discrimination of religious minorities, emancipating Jews, and ending hereditary preference across Europe ended up lasting much longer than his military victories.  The three big holdouts to this were the monarchies of Britain, Austria, and Russia, and they eventually ganged up on him long enough beat him.

As the Industrial Revolution swept North America and Europe, the social order fell apart as people moved from the countryside to cities and found new jobs as industrial workers.  Modern industry destroyed artisanal crafts like weaving and blacksmithing and turned them into textile manufacturers and steel mills.  Instead of rural self-employment in a trade or agriculture, people became employees and workers for large corporations.  By selling their labor in exchange for a wage, they ended the traditional feudal order where one worked at one’s family trade or farm.

Eliminating the feudal order while inventing manufacturing technology led to capitalism.  Without the liberal revolutions that ended feudal privileges, capitalism could not exist.  Liberal policies also encouraged public education, taxation of large landowners, infrastructure, free trade, and efficient government.  They also promoted freedom of religion.  Conservatives opposed these because it reduced the power and money of the nobility and the church.  An educated public that can travel around and work where they want will not look up to the old masters who benefited from large rural and ignorant population.

Capitalism started most strongly in Protestant northern Europe, France, and North America.  Internal trade within nations destroyed the need to make most clothes and tools at home or in the nearby town. This concentrated employment in central cities.  Railroads moved these mass manufactured goods out to the public.  This meant that for the first time in human history, people were able to buy non-local goods on a regular basis.  Fewer and fewer local jobs were needed and more things were bought and sold instead of being made at home.  But this also had negative consequences.

After a few decades, it became clear that capitalism concentrated wealth more and more of the wealth in fewer and fewer hands. People complained that instead of a feudal order running things, there was an economic class order.  Instead of aristocrats and commoners, society divided into the bourgeoisie and the proletarians.  The bourgeoisie class were owners and the proletarian class were urban workers.  Specifically the owners owned the means of production (factories, land, equipment), and workers sold their labor (for a wage) to make goods for the owners.  Because of the horrific conditions of urban factories, workers began to rebel and form working class parties.

Amidst the tumult, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848.  They argued that world history is the history of class struggle.  The class struggle against aristocracy was led by the bourgeoisie and now won (he called these revolutions bourgeois revolutions).  Their victory led to the creation of the proletarians who will lead the final revolution… the revolution of socialism to create a classless society.  The working class will create a revolutionary government with the goal of eliminating all class differences.  At that point, the state would wither away and people would live in a perfect state of communism where there was no government and no class differences between people.

To summarize, feudalism ends when merchants and the middle classes overthrow them (bourgeois revolution). These classes become the bourgeoisie and create industrial workers out of the now-employed and no longer hereditary lower classes.  These industrial workers become proletarians should overthrow the bourgeoisie (socialist revolution) to create a worker’s state to eliminate all classes and create economic equality.

The perfect place to do this would be an advanced capitalist nation like France, England, or Germany because the number of industrial workers would be highest and feudal power the weakest. But oddly enough, the first revolution happened in Russia, a rural and backward nation.  But more on that in the next post.