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?

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