What Was Done
The Russian Revolution of 1917 (The Dirty Commie Rats took over.)
I. Interpretive Introduction (Historiography)
Explanations for what happened in 1917 range across the political spectrum. What happened? Who dunnit? What shape or direction did the events take?
Marx’s prediction was that socialist revolutions would inevitably take place in highly developed capitalist countries (like Germany, Britain or France.) Russia was neither developed nor capitalist, but the process of industrialization had begun by the 1890’s and was accelerating. As more and more factories were built, an industrialized proletariat began growing that would eventually be radicalized. It would be the proletariat which would lead the revolution, not the ignorant, even reactionary peasantry. The proletariat was better educated, urban, and ready to become active in politics. In 1903 the Russian Social Democratic Party split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Mensheviks led by Georgi Plekhanov emerged as the more orthodox Marxists. They sided with the liberals in seeking a constitutional monarchy that would hasten the development of a capitalist industrial economy in Russia and eventually bring about the creation of a proletariat capable of leading a socialist revolution.
Revisionist Marxists (like Eduord Bernstein in Germany) emerged after Marx’s death. They argued that a socialist society could be brought into being democratically and peacefully through the legislative process and through the pressure of trade union collective bargaining. (They believed that violence would pervert the development of a socialist state. They believed that decisions should be made democratically by all workers, not just by an elite leadership.)
Lenin argued that a world-wide revolution could be provoked by revolution in Russia. This revolution would not be led by the workers (who were too ready to compromise on collective bargaining agreements), nor would it be led by the peasants (who were not educated well enough to understand their best interests). A successful revolution could only take place if it were spear-headed by a political elite, a secret group of highly educated revolutionaries totally dedicated to pulling down the system and replacing it with a highly centralized, authoritarian government. These elite would implement its decisions through a strictly disciplined party structure and lead the nation through an intensive period of social transformation involving class conflict and rapid industrialization.
These historians argue that the October Revolution was a genuine proletarian revolution, neither premature nor accidental. It had indeed been governed by historical law. Its goal was to destroy the classes which supported the Tsar’s regime: the nobility, the bourgeoisie, capitalists and shopkeepers, even well-to-do peasants (kulaks). If you belonged to this class, you could not avoid being a ‘class enemy’ and therefore should be liquidated. Workers and peasants alone would inherit the land.
Was the Bolshevik claim to represent the workers and peasants justified? Did the revolution have popular support? Did the Bolsheviks betray the working class? Or did they provide opportunities for workers to rise in the new system?
Liberals wonder why
Modernizers believe that
To the Russian revolutionaries, modernization meant industrialization, and industrialization was necessary to create modern weaponry. Modernization meant finding the money to build the factories and towns to construct aircraft, tanks, and artillery. Unless Russia modernized quickly, she would be conquered by Germany, which had demonstrated its superior firepower and organization in WWI. In this interpretation of what happened, socialism is less important than rapid industrialization.
In the tradition of Hobbes and Edmund Burke, conservatives argue that all revolutions follow the same pattern: when authority is overthrown, things fall apart. Too much freedom encourages social unrest and can lead to the nightmare of civil war. (The Time of Troubles III)
Americans portray Lenin and the Bolsheviks as Commie Rats who created a rogue state which played havoc with our security for nearly eighty years. The legitimate (liberal) government had been seized via a coup de’tat by gangsters and terrorists. The Bolshevik’s secret weapon was party organization and discipline. The state they ruled was totalitarian. It tyrannized its passive people through ideology, propaganda, and violence. The Bolsheviks were no different than the Nazis.
Anything that can be done should be done to avoid the creation of another state which embraces an ideology in opposition to our fundamental beliefs in natural rights. (life, liberty, property) We will support any government which provides law and order and creates the conditions where business can get done.
“Hey, shit happens.” The stars aligned in the perfect formation to allow a tiny minority like the Bolsheviks to seize power. Pure Luck. It is a stretch to attach a meaning to an essentially random act.
a. Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)
Catastrophic military defeat in the Far East whose consequences were national humiliation, the loss of territories, and worst, the revelation that the vaunted Russian military could not even compete with another “3rd World” power, much less the Germans or the British.
b. Bloody Sunday
Jan. 1905 slaughter outside the
c. October Manifesto
The tsar concedes. The autocracy ends, and a constitutional
monarchy is installed which promises real power to the Duma (legislative
assembly) and promises civil liberties. At long last, liberalism has come to
d. The Duma
The Tsar sought to rig the election in order to ensure a pliant legislature. Every 2,000 landowners selected a representative. Every 30,000 peasants elected a representative. Every 90,000 workers select a representative. Every 4,000 urban citizens select a representative. Even with the system rigged to enable the tsar to retain power, in the first election almost all of the representatives came from the Cadets and Social Revolutionaries. The Tsar dissolved the Duma and rigged the vote again and then again to get a compliant Duma.
And its usurpation
Ministers remained answerable to tsar not the Duma. The army in the West was reinforced by one million troops returning from the East, and martial law was declared in rebelling peasant villages. The St. Petersburg and Moscow Soviets were repressed.
Even so, the effort to create a market economy over rode political concerns. A major program of agrarian reforms was begun which sought the creation of small independent farmers. Enormous loans from the West were negotiated, and major investments were made in industry.
Then WWI intervened…
During February 1917, a spontaneous uprising against tsar was sparked by desertions and mutinies in the army as the catastrophic losses Russia suffered in WWI continued to mount. The Bolsheviks were not in play. The crisis resulted in a tentative move, again, towards liberalizing the Tsarist autocracy.
a. World War One
The Russian army had suffered four million casualties and counting; victory against the Austrians was followed by repeated defeats at the hands of the better equipped and better led German Wehrmacht; economic turmoil spread at home as the price of bread went up and up. The Tsar was at the front, and the Tsarina and the mad priest Rasputin were in control at home.
b. Abdication of the Tsar (March 15)
Now, who would gain sovereignty?
c. The Provisional Government
(Control of army, capital, police and ports was given to Georgi Lvov, the head of the Zemstvo League, as its first head until a Constituent Assembly could draft a new constitution and elections could be held.)
i. War Policy
The liberals resolved to honor their treaty alliances with
the Brits and the French and fight on. Their goal was a negotiated victory
which would give them
ii. Land Policy
The new government restricted land seizures by peasants until “after future elections” ie never.
iii. Constituent Assembly
A new constitutional convention was called. Founding Fathers stuff.
iv. Kerensky to Power
A charismatic speaker, a Menshevik, was appointed to build a bridge between the government and the Soviets, the shadow government being organized among the workers, peasants and soldiers by the SR’s and the SD’s.
v. Kerensky Offensive
From mid-June to early July, the Russian Army went on the offensive against the Germans in central Europe was turned back. It was a disastrous failure, and resulted in more than 200,000 casualties, and the patience of the soldiers snaps. Many deserted.
d. The Soviets
Neighborhood, grass roots assemblies elect representatives to
councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. SR’s dominated but the Bolsheviks
and Mensheviks figured as a prominent minority. The
i. Order #1
On March 1st, the Petrograd Soviet issued a call for the democratization of the Army through the creation of elected soldiers’ committees. The Soldiers were exhorted to disobey officers if they were not consulted in the decision making process. Most importantly, the order asserted the authority of the Soviet on all policy questions concerning the armed forces. Confrontation between the enlisted men and the officer corps, loyal to the provisional government, seemed certain.
1. “All power to the Soviets”
Lenin immediately announced that the workers themselves were finally in a position where they could seize power. He called for the Soviets to take full control from the Provisional Government. (In essence, the slogan taunted those member of the Soviet not willing to assert power and too willing to compromise with the liberals.)
2. “Land, Peace and Bread”
His slogan called for immediate land reform, an end to the war, and the opening of the granaries to a famished populace. (Nice politics, but it also called for civil war.)
iii. July Days 1917
In July, after the catastrophe of the Kerensky offensive, spontaneous uprisings took place in Petrograd. Workers and soldiers took to the streets clamoring for the Soviets to take the government, but their effort was disorganized and therefore quickly lost steam. Lenin was cautious, seemingly caught off guard. He refused to commit to overthrowing the Provisional Government, and the energy went out of the demonstrations. He had preached insurrection but had not planned it. The Bolsheviks appeared too timid to the rebels and too radical for the general public. The government cracked down. It seemed like Lenin’s moment had passed. He fled the country for Finland.
To the rescue came a right wing general who tried to seize power
in late August to protect the country from a communist revolution and so
restore the tsar to power. In response, Kerensky armed the workers in
Given a second opportunity, Lenin took full advantage of it. He could claim that the workers, not the government, had saved the country from the coup. His party was the only one not associated with the Provisional Government and its failures. His party was the one most closely associated with workers’ power and armed uprising. When the Bolsheviks seized power in October, the coup was bloodless, and a sizeable chunk of the people supported him.
a. The Seizure of Power
Did the Bolsheviks want a quasi-legal transfer of power based on a decision of the Congress of Soviets that the Provisional Government no longer had a mandate to rule, or did they want to seize power directly and prove that they had the courage to do so?
Lenin called for the latter, but he was out of the country, and the Central Committee was reluctant to take such a gamble when things were so clearly moving their way. In October Lenin returned to the country, and on October 24th, the Petrograd Soviet did move to occupy key government institutions such as the telegraph offices and railway stations. They created check points on the city’s bridges and surrounded the Winter Palace where the Provisional Government was in session. There was no violent resistance. In a meeting of the Congress of Soviets the following day, the Bolsheviks, who were a minority, announced that Lenin would be the head of the new government, the Council of People’s Commissars, and Bolsheviks held every position on that committee.
b. Council of People’s Commissars ie. Lenin and Trotsky
i. Immediate Decrees
Peace initiative, land seizures, factory seizures, nobility abolished, Church suppressed, alphabet reformed, calendar reformed, Cheka created, national debt repudiated.
ii. Suppression of Constituent Assembly
Vote in December: The SR’s won 40% of the vote, and the Bolsheviks only got 25%. The Bolsheviks had dominated the vote in Petrograd and Moscow and within the armed forces. The SR’s overall victory was the result of winning the peasant vote in the villages. This was the last free election in Russia for eighty years. When the Assembly met, they were unceremoniously dispersed. The Bolsheviks reasoned that they did not represent the people as a whole. They had taken power in the name of the workers. Lenin created a one party system and had the Cheka arrest all opposition.
iii. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk March 1918 (map)
Lenin pulls Russia out of the war and surrenders to the Germans. He gives up 27% of the country, 1/3rd of its industry, ¾ of its coal mines. Russian conservatives are outraged. The allies are outraged. The Germans are happy. Lenin believed that this treaty would be torn up once the workers’ revolution broke out in Germany. That did not happen, but the Germans did wind up losing the war and were forced to return the territories in the Baltic states and the Ukraine that they had taken from the Russians.
V. The Civil War 1918-21
a. Reds (Trotsky) v. Whites, Allies and Poland (map)
White (Anti-Bolshevik) forces formed in the South of Russia supported by Czech troops, in the North supported by British and American troops, and in the Southwest supported by French troops.
b. War Communism
To survive its baptism by fire, the Russian Bolsheviks used violence and terror to consolidate their government’s power and win the civil war. The Bolsheviks designated all of their opponents as ‘class enemies’: the Russian nobility, the Russian bourgeoisie, and the interventionist capitalist armies. To win the war required the nationalization of industries and state distribution of commodities. The Bolsheviks justified these policies ideologically as first moves towards communism. In 1918 there was huge optimism that a new world would rise out of the ashes of this conflict.
During the Civil War the Red Army became the primary bureaucratic organ of the Bolshevik government. Marxists argue that the effort required to win the Civil War ‘militarized’ the Bolshevik party and resulted in tendencies towards rule by fiat, centralized authority, and summary justice. The Bolsheviks were the party of workers, soldiers and sailors: people used to authoritarian rule. Liberal historians would argue that it was Lenin’s insistence on central control of the party that led to such authoritarian measures.
In reality the Red Army was composed primarily of peasant conscripts, and most of their officers were holdovers from the old tsarist army. To maintain control over the army, the Bolsheviks assigned political commissars to each officer who had to countersign each order.
The Cheka was established during the summer 1918 after Lenin was shot and nearly killed in an assassination attempt. Both the Reds and the Whites resorted to terror. Lenin and Trotsky justified their repressive policies by insisting that the revolution’s survival was at stake. They regarded their tough minded policies as Jacobin in nature, not Tsarist.
Industry was nationalized; private enterprise and trade were reduced; the peasants were allowed to keep land they had seized in 1917, but the government resorted to grain requisitions (at gunpoint) to feed workers and soldiers.
By 1920 the economy had been devastated. Industrial and agricultural production had come to a standstill. Trade that did exist came only in the form of barter. No currency was recognized.
The Soviet government survived because the Reds held a strategic advantage via interior lines of supply and communication. The Whites also failed to convince peasants to return to the old order, and they refused to guarantee autonomy to national minorities.
In March 1919 Lenin founded the Communist Internationale (Comintern), a league of revolutionary socialist parties dominated by the Bolsheviks that was dedicated to promoting world revolution. To distinguish his movement from the other more moderate socialist parties in Europe, he renamed his party the "Russian Communist Party".
The revolution he had hoped for in Germany, though, was crushed. (See the 1919 Spartacist Revolt)
VI. The NEP 1921
a. One Step Backward
Fifteen to twenty million people were killed, starved or died of disease between 1914 and 1921. When the Civil War finally ended, millions of Red Army vets had to be assimilated into the economy. Peasant uprisings broke out in several regions. A major revolt erupted at the naval base in Kronstadt which shook the new government. These iron workers and sailors had previously been staunch supporters of the revolution, but now they demanded civil rights. Trotsky put the revolt down violently.
In March 1921 Lenin announced his New Economic Policy: “one step backwards, two steps forward.” The NEP de-nationalized most industry and commerce (except for heavy metals) and freed the peasant to sell their grain at market prices. Retail trade and the labor market were also freed. By 1924-25, the Soviet economy had recovered. Even though Lenin retreated on economic policy, he locked in his control of the Communist party. Previously, party members had felt free to engage in debate and even oppose Lenin’s policies. No more. An iron rule against ‘factionalism’ was implemented. In foreign policy, the Soviets adopted a doctrine of ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the capitalist West while its economy recovered.
By 1925-26, the Bolsheviks felt more confident about pursuing their original intention of turning Russia into a socialist state. Displeasure with the cultural pluralism and social freedoms of the NEP period brought new threats about ‘class enemies’. Workers were resentful of ‘bourgeois experts’.
b. Lenin’s Death 1924
Lenin suffered a stroke early in May 1922, and before he could fully recover, he suffered another even more debilitating stroke in the spring of 1923. He died in January 1924.
Notes from Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (1994) (pp. 120-172)
a. Power Struggle and “What is to be Done” redux
When Lenin died, three rivals in the upper echelons of the party vied for power:
After using Bukharin as his chief polemicist against the Trotsky-Zinovievite Left, Stalin turned on his Rightist allies during the winter of 1928.
occured over grain procurement policy. Stalin argued that
coercion was necessary to squeeze more income from agriculture in order to
finance a crash course of industrialization. During the NEP a large percentage
of all marketed grain came from a small percentage of peasant farmers. Stalin
argued that negotiating with these 'kulaks' would ultimately be useless: they
would always want more. Where the Rightists proposed moderate, small-gain, low
conflict policies, even trading manufactured goods for grain and maintaining NEP policies, Stalin
promised more results to a base eager to embrace a harder turn. Stalin
manouevered the Right into a position which made them appear to be allied to
elitist 'liberal' policies.
The Rightists also objected to Stalin's renunciation of collective Bolshevik leadership. As General Secretary, a seemingly benign post, Stalin had been able to cultivate patronage and use administrative exile as a political weapon. When Bukharin learned of Stalin’s unilateral move, he sealed his fate by approaching the Trotsky left where he was reported referring to Stalin as 'Genghis Khan with a telephone'.
b. Five Year Plan: Industrialization
Beginning in 1928, Stalin set a crash course to industrialize the economy. In Feb 1931 he described the challenge Russia faced: (see Those Who Fall Behind Get Beaten (1931). He argued that Russia could not survive the coming clashes with the West unless it industrialized rapidly. To accomplish this goal, all of the country’s resources needed to be focused on developing heavy industry.
Stalin proposed to finance crash industrialization by selling the country’s grain on the international market. That meant forcing the peasantry to work harder and for less than ever. To justify coercive actions, Stalin declared class war on kulaks (rich peasants), forced villages to join together in collective farms, and diverted their income to the government. See Stalin, Problems of Agrarian Policy in the USSR. December 27, 1929 (On kulak liquidation).
By establishing full centralized control of the economy and extending administrative control to the village level, Stalin argued that a milestone on the road to socialism had been achieved. On the village level the organization of collective farms (kolkhozezs) meant browbeating, confiscation of farm animals, church desecrations, and mass deportations of kulaks. In March 1930, Stalin announced that the program had become Dizzy with Success: He blamed local authorities for exceeding instructions and ordered the return of draught animals. at the same time a new wave of factory workers were recruited to act as kolkhoz organizers.
The first five years of Stalin’s plan created chaos and actually reduced productivity. Propaganda trumpeted the creation of large, productive mechanized farms, but the reality of collectivization was simply the old village mir with fewer peasants and draught animals, living in the same huts and tilling the same fields but now delivering 40% of their crop at low set prices. Stalin even admitted eventually that the peasant garden was key to an individual peasant's survival.
Collectivization wrought a massive and historic demographic shift in Russia from the countryside to the cities. Between 1928 and 1932 more than 12 million peasants migrated to the cities. In 1931 alone 2.5 million peasants were forcibly deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. During the winter of 1931-32 an induced famine killed 3-4 million people in the major grain producing regions of the country: Ukraine, Central Volga, Kazakhstan and the N. Caucasus. Officials had requisitioned seed grain and left the peasants to starve. In December 1932 the government required all peasants to possess internal passports to prevent starving peasants from leaving the countryside to seek food in the cities.
d. Cultural Revolution
The Five Year Plan sought to 'liquidate the kulaks as a class'. As part of his struggle to subdue the Right Opposition, Stalin accused them of ties with the bourgeois intelligentsia: the factory and administrative 'experts' who had retained key places in the state bureaucracy. He painted the Right as over reliant on the advice of non-party experts and too prone to 'liberalism' rather than revolutionary zeal.
Soviets took particular interest in education. Not only did Stalin want
his youth to be literate but his propaganda arm needed their
revolutinary zeal. With Communist
Youth Groups (Kommosol; RAPP), he intended to create a belligerent
avant-garde that would become a new intelligentsia. In the towns
this meant the sons of the white collar workers were denied places in
college while worker sons with only a middle school education got in.
In the villages, this policy meant that young urban party militants 'went to the people' this time using Civil War rhetoric and claiming that apocalyptic change was at hand. "We are building a new world." Their visionary utopianism predicted the advent of new cities, projects for communal living, the transformation of nature, and the arrival of the new Soviet man. However. their anti-religious and re-education campaign confirmed in the minds of many peasants that the Bolsheviks were 'anti-Christ'. By mid-1930 Stalin had begun to rein in these 'hair brains'.
By 1934 Stalin proclaimed that Life's Getting Better (1934). He declared victory: the party’s enemy classes liquidated, unemployment vanquished, collectivization achieved, universal primary education begun. The new Soviet man was emerging; nature was being transformed.
Had socialism been achieved?
"Revolution from Above" had succeeded in changing the modes of production at the foundation of the economy which Marxist theory argued would result in the alteration of the whole superstructure of society. even Western economists acceded the fact of Soviet 'industrial take off' in production, but they also claimed that similar levels of growth could have been achieved by maintaining NEP policies.
Collectivization remained the 'Achilles heel' of the economy. Despite propaganda claims, the real kolkhoz retained the same small, village based, primitive form of farming, only with sharply reduced living standards. Collectivization for the peasants meant extreme economic exploitation: a second serfdom.
Even so, the state had survived, but according to Marxist theory, it should then begin to 'wither away'. Stalin finessed this theoretical embarassment by arguing that socialism had been achieved, but 'communism' still beckoned in their collective future. Trotsky claimed a new Soviet Thermidor: bureaucracy (the party) had replaced the working class as the foundation of the party, but Stalin claimed that he had created a new intelligensia with the sons of the working class.
In 1931 Stalin began a retreat in earnest from the ultra-revolutionary, class war enthusiasms of the cultural revolution's. In his speech New Conditions -- New Tasks in Economic Development (1931), Stalin denounced the militant anti-elitism and vulgar egalitarianism of the militants and accepted a new social hierarchy based on education, occupation and social status. He presented himself as a man of culture, like Lenin, and reorganized higher education along traditional pre-revolutionary norms. Heroes returned to history books and the virtues of family life were extolled.
The cult of Stalin began in earnest, and the character of the Soviet Union began to solidify: closed frontiers, siege mentality, cultural isolation and restricted contact with the West. (See Stalin and the "Cult of Personality" ) Stalin cultivated an air of mystery and inscrutability around his rule. He urged vigilance against 'wreckers' and denunciation of all 'class enemies'.
A new 'service nobility' enjoyed the privileges of a higher standard of living. The new intelligentsia welcomed back old technical experts, and in the cultural sphere Swan Lake and Pushkin were back in vogue.
For the rest of the urban dwelling populace, though, the new socialism meant food rationing and living crammed into communal apartments with several families occupying one room and sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities. Tensions simmered.
Then in early 1935, Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party boss, was assassinated, and a new spasm of terror commenced.
Stalin blamed the former opposition groups for the murder, but he had engineered the killing himself to provide a pretext for purging the party, bureaucracy and military of any potential political opponents.
In August 1936, show trials of opposition party members began. (Kamenev and Zinoviev from the left), then Marshal Tukashevsky and the military leadership, next the Rightists, Rykov and Bukharin (see Bukharin's Letter to Stalin (1937)), and finally, the leader of the secret police (Yagoda) who had been tasked with executing Stalin's purges. These 'trials' were theatrical contrivances whose scripts included confessions of economic sabotage and collusion with Western enemies prior to summary execution.
Late in 1936 mass arrests began in the upper echelons of the party heralding witch hunts seeking out ‘enemies of the people’. In reality Stalin and his henchmen Molotov and Ezhov, the new security head, now demanded quotas of 'traitors' on lists from party heads across the country. All Old Bolshevik elites along with cohorts from the Civil War through collectivization were shot or exiled into the Gulag. Stalin sought to take out any new enemies as well: the victims of class war vs. NEP men and kulaks. All party members were forced to defend their loyalty before purge commissions.
Stalin argued that these individual class enemies had become even more dangerous even though the enemy classes had been destroyed. He encouraged denunciations and allowed massive popular participation in acts of personal recrimination and private revenge. 500,000 more inmates were added to the Gulag (total 1.3 million) and as many as 3/4 million people were shot in jail.