Leadership Was Key in the Making of the Russian Revolution

The story of the October Revolution of 1917 is as much one of the masses of Russia taking their future in their own hands as it is of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The chequered character of the tumultuous years 1917-21 in Russia and her neighbourhood demand a different reading. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What is remarkable about the making of the revolution is that Lenin was not himself an army commander but could perceive the mood of the peasants (who wanted land), workers (who wanted bread) and sailors and soldiers (who wanted peace). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century

The world of man has been transformed by two bourgeois revolutions – the one in England in the 1640s (also called the Civil War) and the French Revolution in 1789 – and four socialist revolutions in the 20th century.  The first was in Russia in 1917, the second in China in 1949, the third in Vietnam starting in 1945 and the fourth in Cuba in 1959. One principal difference between these revolutions is that while in the first two there was no single guiding leader, in the case of the socialist revolutions, there were.

In the case of Russia it was Vladimir Lenin, in  China it was Mao Zedong, in Vietnam Ho Chi Minh and in Cuba, it was Fidel Castro. In all the cases, however, the revolt was against the status quo, which was seen as an enemy of human freedom and well-being. The first revolution in England ushered in bourgeois rule in that country, while the French Revolution led to the advent of bourgeois rule in France and as a domino effect to bourgeois rule in practically all countries in Europe except the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia.

In the case of the English Revolution, the ideology and vocabulary were provided by the invocation of the Magna Carta, of Puritanism in all its varieties against High Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. In the case of France, it was provided by the Enlightenment philosophers – Rousseau, Voltaire, Condorcet and Tom Paine. In the case of Russia, the ideology was provided by Marxism, in China and Vietnam it was provided by Marxism-Leninism, while Castro was inspired by Cuba’s earlier struggle against Spanish rule followed by US dominance; after the success of the revolution, he also embraced Marxism-Leninism as his ideology.

While all four socialist leaders displayed enormous courage and strategic sense all their lives, Lenin’s achievement was the most remarkable of all because there was no template of revolution before him. Marx and Engels spent their entire life formulating the ideology and assembling the data and arguments for the desirability and inevitability of a socialist society succeeding the capitalist order, but they left no practical guidelines about how to go about effecting a revolution. In formulating his theory of revolution and working out practical strategies for bringing it about, Lenin had to fight against tremendous odds.

First, Marx and Engels had hypothesised that it was in the advanced capitalist societies where the first socialist revolutions would take place because only they possessed a developed capitalist class. Although Marx admitted in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich, that there could be a social revolution in Russia, bypassing the capitalist stage on the basis of communal land ownership, this would play into the hands of one of Lenin’s principal enemies, the Narodniks.

Engels became more or less the mentor of the German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest Marxist party in Europe. Again, while he closely studied the literature put out by the party, he soon had differences with its main trend which thought that socialism could be attained by treading the parliamentary path, and soon became complicit with the power structure. One of its leaders, Eduard Bernstein, argued that just by putting forward economic demands the working class would be so prosperous there would be no need to struggle for a social revolution. This argument was taken up by Pyotr Struve, one of many enemies of Lenin who thought that they were also working towards the overthrow of tsardom.

Friedrich Engels. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Friedrich Engels. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lenin’s political journey began when his older brother Sasha was executed after he was caught making a bomb for assassinating Tsar Alexander III. In 1887, Lenin went to study in Kazan University, where he took part in a demonstration against the government which then sent him in exile to his family estate. His thoughts turned towards revolution on reading Chernyshevsky’s What is To Be Done? Returning to Kazan he discovered the writings of Marx and became a communist in his beliefs, namely that class struggles between capitalists and workers would lead to a socialist society. Qualifying as a lawyer, Lenin continued to engage in radical politics. Soon he wrote a pamphlet criticising the agrarian socialists, What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How they Fight the Social-Democrats. He first suffered imprisonment while distributing a pamphlet,  Workers’ Cause,  and after that was exiled to Siberia. While in jail, he collected district-level data and wrote his book The Development of Capitalism in Russia which convincingly showed that despite the propaganda that there were no class differentiation among the peasantry in Russia, capitalism was fast developing in Russian agriculture. He also became convinced that only an armed struggle could overthrow Tsarist autocracy and only a tightly-knit organisation of dedicated revolutionaries could do that. In 1900, he began publishing Iskra (Spark) as the organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSLDP).

In 1902, he met and befriended Leon Trotsky. Lenin soon lost control over Iskra. At the second RSLDP conference, there was a split between the supporters of Lenin and those of Julius Martov over the question of the organisation of the party. Lenin’s group won the vote and they were called the Bolsheviks (the majority) and Martov’s group became know as the Mensheviks (the minority).

The rest of the history of the Russian Revolution revolves around the struggles between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Cadets (the liberal party) and the Agrarian Socialists (the Socialist Revolutionaries). Lenin mainly lived in exile in Switzerland and directed the operations of the Bolsheviks from there. Despite the opposition of the Mensheviks, the Bolshevik faction continued to grow. In the revolution of 1905, the Bolsheviks resorted to many violent actions such as the armed robbery of the State Bank in Tiflis, Georgia by Joseph Stalin. Lenin also used successive papers such as Forward and New Life to propagate his ideas. He correctly predicted that the Tsar would take back most of the concessions he had made once the 1905 disturbances died down. Even after 1905, Lenin stuck to his determination to conduct an armed uprising to overthrow the stardom. His opportunity came in 1917 when the Russian army, ill-equipped and ill-prepared, suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of Germany and Austria, and there were desertions of two million demoralised soldiers from the Russian army.

Lenin travelled from Switzerland to Petrograd via Finland arriving there on April 3, 1917. The February (in Gregorian calendar, March) revolution, when uncontrollable street demonstrations had forced Tsar Nicolas II to resign, had already taken place. A provisional government was formed and Alexander Kerensky became prime minister of the government after several changes. In order to protect the workers from attacks by monarchists and General Kornilov, he armed the Petrograd Soviet (council). But he continued to urge the soldiers to fight on the allied side. It was at his urging that Russia suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Austria.

Arriving in Petrograd, Lenin propounded his April Theses with the slogans: ‘All power to the Soviets’, and fight for ‘land, peace and bread’. He publicly condemned both the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries – who dominated the influential Petrograd Soviet – for supporting the provisional government, denouncing them as traitors to socialism. Considering the government to be just as imperialist as the Tsarist regime, he advocated immediate peace with Germany. Soon after his arrival, he urged the Bolsheviks to undertake an armed insurrection. The provisional government responded with mass arrests. Fearing for his life, he escaped to Finland where he wrote the book The State and Revolution.

Vladimir Lenin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Lenin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After the defeat of Kornilov’s coup, Lenin returned to Petrograd on October 10 (Julian calendar) and urged an armed insurrection. The party began plans to organise the offensive, holding a final meeting at the Smolny Institute on October 24 (Julian calendar). This was the base of the Military Revolutionary Committee, an armed militia largely loyal to the Bolsheviks that had been established by the Petrograd Soviet during Kornilov’s coup. The Bolsheviks besieged the government in the Winter Palace, overcame it and arrested its ministers after the cruiser Aurora, controlled by Bolshevik seamen, fired on the building. Lenin announced that the provisional government had been overthrown.

Although on November 9 (Gregorian calendar), the council of people’s commissars with Lenin as the president took power, the fighting was by no means over. As John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World shows, the Petrograd municipal duma was still dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. More ominously, Kerensky began marching against Petrograd with junkers (aristocratic soldiers) and Cossacks. However, the revolutionary sailors and soldiers inspired by the People’s Commissars thoroughly trounced them and Kerensky fled the country. That was on November 14. The battle for Moscow was already on with the Bolsheviks bombarding the Kremlin and the cathedrals where the White Guards, junkers and Cossacks had been holed up. With their surrender and the conquest of all other regions by soldiers, the October Revolution was over.

Following the Marxist concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a transition stage between capitalism and socialism, Lenin rigidly excluded representatives of the bourgeoisie from the government. As we have seen, the consolidation of bourgeois rule also happened in both England and France with dictatorship.

What is remarkable about the making of the revolution is that Lenin was not himself an army commander but could perceive the mood of the peasants (who wanted land), the workers (who wanted bread) and sailors and soldiers (who wanted peace). As Reed’s book makes clear, at every turn, when the armed workers, sailors and soldiers perceived an officer to be traitorous or dithering in his decisions at crucial moments, they themselves took charge and carried out the needed action. While the story of the Russian Revolution is the story of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, it is also a story of the masses of Russia taking their future in their own hands.

Amiya Kumar Bagchi is a distinguished economist whose books include The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, Private Investment in India 1900-1939 and Colonialism and the Indian Economy.