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.

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