The Russian experience, 1917-1929: (1): the revolution itself

The Trotskyist interpretation of the aftermath of the Revolution, the developments in postrevolutionary society in the former Czarist empire, is defecient. In an earlier article, I sketched the main outlines of that interpretation. Here I will try to explain what is wrong  with the first parts of it.

The first element in the Trotskyist analysis, however,  is basically correct: yes, there was a working class revolution in Russia in 1917. First, there were the demonstrations for bread in Women’s day in Petrograd. A general strike grew out of these protests; demonstrations grew, police and soldiers failed to break the tide of revolt. Within a week, mutinies brought whole regiments to the side of the rebellious population. After  some wrangling and much despair in high places, the Czar abdicated. The workers had overthrown the Czarist state within a week. this  became known as the February Revolution.

This workers’ revolution, however, did not directly lead tothe power of the working class over society. There developed a period in which a Provisional Government, first of liberals, later of reformist socialistsunder the leadership of  Kerensky, tried to keep any changes within capitalist limits. Especially, they wanted to continue the war against Germany as part of the Entente with France and britain. Thorough reforms were endlessly postoned. On the other side, there was the network of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants councils: the soviets. They expressed the power of the exploited classes, of whicht the urban working class held the central, stragegic  position.

At first, workers and soldiers mostly elected delegates of the reformist parties in the soviets. Under their tutelage the soviets were a kind a of loyal opposition. Within months, however, workers saw that these kind of socialists refused to bring about the changes workers wanted: an end to the war, measures against hunger, workers control of the factories against a management that defended their privileges and power. Workers began to shift their support to a party that, after an internal strruggle, mor ore less expressed their desires for radical change. Peasants  began attacking the landlords and taking over their lands. The revolution was not over; it had barely begun.

This was the period of dual power: a pro-capitalist gvernment, against soviets who more and more expressed the desire to continue the revolution. Bolshevik support grew, struggle intensified; in July, there was almost an insurrection that overthrew the goverment. The government and the right wing struck back: in August, there was the coup attempt by general Kornilov. This collapsed because of worker’ resistance in whcih the Bolsheviks played a prominent part. In September, the Bolshevik party gained majority support in the important soviets of Moscow and Petrograd.

Their leader Lenin now began to pushfor armed insurrection to overthrow the government, who was g quickly losing much of iets authority. After an struggle within the party, combined with the pressure of workers and peasants who were already beginning to take things in their own hands, the Bolsheviks opted for insurrection. A weak effort of the government to transfer revolutionary regiments out Petrograd, and to closeBolshevik papers, was exactly the provocation the Bolsheviks could use. A few thousands Red Guards and revolutionary soldiers overhrew the government. This became known as the October Revolution.

The Bolsheviks leadership, together with some Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, did much of the organisational work through the Military Revolutionary Committee. However, the Bolshevik leadership – Lenin from a disctance, Troksky on the scene itself – led the operation. It was the Bolsheviks which were in charge – but they made there move in the knowledge that their slogan – ‘All Power to the Soviets”- had majority working class support. In the All-Russian congress of Soviets, in session while the insurretion unfolded, a majority accepted the Bolshevik proposal to form a government made of Bolsheviks. Thse whole thing had aspects of a coup d’etat. But it was much more: a tide of working class revolt that had first overthrew Czarism , had now led to the overthrow of the provisional government as well. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were in charge. Or were they?

There was a contradiction from Day One. By having their leaders elected in a government – even of it as called a Council of People’s Commissars – the Bolshevik party created an instutite that stood, in a rea sense, above the soviets. Yes, it was responsible towards the soviets, it reported back etcetera. But the relationship between soviets and government was not unlike the relationship between a government and a parliament in bourgeois democracy: in practice, the government has enormous leeway, the parliament is not in charge. Neither were, within months after the October revolution, the soviets.

Yes, 1917 saw a working class revolution. But the outcome was contradictory: a extention of soviet power, at first encouraged by the Bolshevik leadership; but at the same time, the construction of  a state power above the soviets,  instigated by that same Bolshevik leadership. That is: the Bolsheviks did not unequivocally bring the soviets to power. They brought themselves to power, on the basis of a soviet majority. That is not quite the same thing.

One could say that this new state was legitimate, because its leaders were elected in that government by the soviet congress. However, that is only valid as long as such a congress, or the Executive Comittee elected by such a congress,  was, and remained, in the position toe replace the government – and as long as workers and peasants could elect end replace their delegates when and if they chose to do so. That proved an illusion in the years that followed.

And even then, its validity is rather limited for those who take the slogan “All Power to the Soveits’ seriously. As soon as soviets tolerate a government with extensive powers above them, power has in essential respects shifted from the soviets to that government. In that situation, the councils may give the government legitimacy, they can influence the direction of government policy. But the councils in such a situation, were not in charge. There was partial soviet power in Russia after the October revolution. But “All Power to the Soviets?” Not exactly.

Referring to the points in whicht I summarised the Trotskyist analysis in my earlier article: point one – Russia experienced a workers’ revolution – stands. Point  two – the Bolsheviks led the working class to soviet power – in a very real sense does not.

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One Response to “The Russian experience, 1917-1929: (1): the revolution itself”

  1. The Russian experience, 1917-1929 (2): 1917-1918 « RedRebelRanter Says:

    […] (this is the third part of a series. Earlier articles appeared on February 19 and April 18). […]

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