October Revolution

views updated Jun 08 2018


During the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the liberal, western-oriented Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky, which was established following the February 1917 Russian Revolution that overthrew Tsar Nicholas II, was removed and replaced by the first Soviet government headed by Vladimir Lenin. The October Revolution began in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), then the capital of Russia, and quickly spread to the rest of the country. One of the seminal events of the twentieth century in terms of its worldwide historical impact, the October Revolution is also one of the most controversial and hotly debated historical events in modern times.

Most western historians, especially at the height of the Cold War, viewed the October Revolution as a brilliantly organized military coup d'état without significant popular support, carried out by a tightly knit band of professional revolutionaries brilliantly led by the fanatical Lenin. This interpretation, severely undermined by western "revisionist" social history in the 1970s and 1980s, was rejuvenated after the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of the Gorbachev era, even though information from newly declassified Soviet archives reinforced the revisionist view. At the other end of the political spectrum, for nearly eighty years Soviet historians, bound by strict historical canons designed to legitimate the Soviet state and its leadership, depicted the October Revolution as a broadly popular uprising of the revolutionary Russian masses. According to them, this social upheaval was deeply rooted in Imperial Russia's historical development and shaped by universal laws of history as formulated by Karl Marx and Lenin. There are kernels of truth and considerable distortion in both of these interpretations.

war and revolution

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 found Russian politics and society in great flux. To be

sure, the autocratic tsarist political system had somehow managed to remain intact throughout the revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even the Revolution of 1905, which resulted in the creation of a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament (the Duma), had left predominant political authority in the hands of Tsar Nicholas II. The abolition of serfdom by Alexander II in 1861 had freed the Russian peasantry, the vast bulk of the empire's population, from personal bondage. However, the terms of the emancipation were such that most peasants remained impoverished. Moreover, a fundamental land reform program initiated by Peter Stolypin in 1906 was so complex that, irrespective of the long-term prospects, when it was interrupted by the war in 1914, the Russian countryside was in particularly great turmoil.

In the late nineteenth century, enlightened officials such as Sergei Witte had reversed government opposition to industrialization and spearheaded a program of rapid economic development. However, the pace of this development was too slow to meet Russia's needs, and the industrial revolution resulted in the crowding of vast numbers of immiserated workers into squalid, rat-infested factory ghettos in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other major Russian cities. It is small wonder, then, that in the opening years of the twentieth century, the major Russian liberal and socialist political parties that were destined to play key roles in 1917 took shape and began to attract popular followings. Likewise, it is no surprise that the Russian government was suddenly faced with a growing, increasingly ambitious and assertive professional middle class, waves of peasant rebellions, and burgeoning labor unrest.

Framed against these political and social realities, the significant degree of popular support enjoyed by the Russian government at the start of the war, in so far as it was visible, must have been heartening to Nicholas II. The Constitutional Democratic or Kadet Party, Russia's main liberal party, officially proclaimed a moratorium on opposition to the monarchy and pledged its unqualified support for the war effort. Beginning in early 1915, when the government's extraordinary incompetence became fully apparent, the Kadets, despite their anguish, made use of the Duma only to call for the appointment of qualified ministers (rather than demand fundamental structural change). With good reason, they calculated that a political upheaval in the existing circumstances would be equally damaging to the war effort and prospects for the eventual creation of a liberal, democratic government. Members of the populist Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party and the moderate social democratic Menshevik Party were split between "defensists," who supported the war effort, and "internationalists," who sought an immediate cessation of hostilities and a compromise peace without victors or vanquished. Only Lenin advocated the fomenting of immediate social revolution in all of the warring countries; however, for the time being, efforts by underground Bolshevik committees in Russia to kindle popular opposition to the war failed.

The February 1917 Revolution, which grew out of prewar instabilities and technological backwardness, along with gross mismanagement of the war effort, continuing military defeats, domestic economic dislocation, and outrageous scandals surrounding the monarchy, resulted in the creation of two potential Russian national governments. One was the Provisional Government formed by members of the Duma to restore order and to provide leadership pending convocation of a popularly elected Constituent Assembly based on the French model. The Constituent Assembly was to design Russia's future political system and take responsibility for the promulgation of other fundamental reforms. The second potential national government was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and its moderate socialist-led Executive Committee. Patterned after similar "worker parliaments" formed during the Revolution of 1905, in succeeding weeks similar institutions of popular self-government were established throughout urban and rural Russia. In early summer 1917, the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the First All-Russian Congress of Peasants' Deputies formed leadership bodies, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the All-Russian Executive Committee of Peasants' Deputies, to represent soviets around the country between national congresses. Until the fall of 1917, when it was taken over by the Bolsheviks, the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet strived to maintain order and protect the revolution until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. This was also true of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the All-Russian Executive Committee of Peasants' Deputies. The Soviet, led by the moderate socialists, made no effort to take formal power into its own hands, although it was potentially stronger than the Provisional Government because of its vastly greater support among workers, peasants, and lowerlevel military personnel. This support skyrocketed in tandem with popular disenchantment with the economic results of the February Revolution, the effort of the Provisional Government to continue the war effort, and its procrastination in convening the Constituent Assembly.

"all power to the soviets!"

At the time of the February Revolution, Lenin was in Switzerland. He returned to Petrograd in early April 1917, demanding an immediate second, "socialist" revolution in Russia. Although he backed off this goal after he acquainted himself with the realities of the prevailing situation (including little support for precipitous, radical revolutionary action even among Bolsheviks), his great achievement at this time was to orient the thinking of the Bolshevik Party toward preparation for the replacement of the Provisional Government by a leftist "Soviet" government as soon as the time was ripe. Nonetheless, in assessing Lenin's role in the October Revolution, it is important to keep in mind that he was either away from the country or in hiding and out of regular touch with his colleagues in Russia for much of the time between February and October 1917. In any case, top Bolshevik leaders tended to be divided into three distinct groups: Lenin and Leon Trotsky, among others, for whom the establishment of revolutionary soviet power in Russia was less an end in itself than the trigger for immediate worldwide socialist revolution; a highly influential group of more moderate national party leaders led by Lev Kamenev for whom transfer of power to the soviets was primarily a vehicle for building a strong alliance of left socialist groups which would form a socialist coalition government to prepare for fundamental social reform and peace negotiations by a socialist-friendly Constituent Assembly; and a middle group of independent-minded leaders whose views on the development of the revolution fluctuated in response to their reading of existing conditions.

Then too, events often moved so rapidly that the Bolshevik Central Committee had to develop policies without consulting Lenin. Beyond this, circumstances were frequently such that structurally subordinate party bodies had perforce to develop responses to evolving realities without guidance or contrary to directives from the center. Also, in 1917 the doors to membership were opened wide, and the Bolshevik organization became a genuine mass political party. In part as a result of such factors, Bolshevik programs and policies in 1917 tended to be developed democratically, with strong inputs from rank-and-file members, and therefore reflected popular aspirations.

Meanwhile, the revolution among factory workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants had a dynamic of its own. At times, the Bolsheviks followed the masses rather than vice versa. For example, on July 14 (July 1 O.S.) the Bolshevik Central Committee, influenced by party moderates, began preparing for a leftsocialist congress aimed at unifying all internationalist elements of the "Social Democracy"(e.g., Menshevik-Internationalists and Left SRs) in support of common revolutionary goals. Yet only two days later, radical elements of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee and Party Military Organization (responsive to their ultra-militant constituencies) helped organize the abortive July uprising, against the wishes of Lenin and the Central Committee, who considered such action premature.

The July uprising ended in an apparent defeat for the Bolsheviks. Lenin was forced into hiding, numerous Bolshevik leaders were jailed, and efforts to form a united left-socialist front were temporarily ended. Still, in light of the success of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, perhaps the main significance of the July uprising was that it reflected the great popular attraction for the Bolshevik revolutionary program, as well as the party's strong links to Petrograd's lower classes, links that would prove valuable over the long term.

What was the Bolsheviks' program? Contrary to conventional wisdom, in 1917 the Bolsheviks did not stand for a one-party dictatorship (neither in July nor at any time before the October Revolution). Rather, they stood for democratic "people's power," exercised through an exclusively socialist, soviet, multiparty government, pending convocation of the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks also stood for more land to individual peasants, "workers' control" in factories, prompt improvement of food supply, and, most important, an early end to the war. All of these goals were neatly packaged in the slogans "Peace, Land, and Bread!" "All Power to the Soviets!" and "Immediate Convocation of the Constituent Assembly!" The interplay and political value of these two key factorsthe attractiveness of the Bolshevik platform and the party's carefully nurtured links to revolutionary workers, soldiers, and sailorswere evident in the fall of 1917, after the left's quick defeat of an unsuccessful rightist putsch led by the commanderin-chief of the Russian army, General Lavr Kornilov (the so-called Kornilov affair).

the bolsheviks come to power

Following the illfated July uprising, Lenin, alienated by moderate socialist attacks on the Bolsheviks and by their support of the Provisional Government and dismissive of the soviets' revolutionary potential, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the party leadership to abandon its emphasis on transfer of power to the soviets and shift its strategy to a unilateral seizure of power. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the Kornilov affair, during which Lenin remained in hiding, he briefly reconsidered this position and allowed for a peaceful transition to soviet power. However, this moderation was fleeting. Isolated from day-to-day developments and decision making in the Russian capital, and evidently influenced primarily by clear signs of deepening social unrest at home and abroad, at the end of September (mid-September O.S.) Lenin decided that the time had come for another revolution in Russia: a socialist revolution that would serve as the catalyst for popular rebellions in other European countries. In two emphatic letters to Bolshevik committees in Petrograd written from a hideout in Finland, he now demanded that the party organize an armed uprising "without losing a single moment."

These letters were received in Petrograd at a time when prospects for peaceful creation of an exclusively socialist government suddenly brightened. After passage by the Petrograd Soviet of a momentous Bolshevik resolution to this effect proposed by Kamenev, the Bolsheviks won majority control of that key body. Trotsky became its chairman. Around the same time, the Bolsheviks also gained control of the Moscow Soviet. Moreover, the Bolshevik leadership was just then focused on trying to persuade the Democratic State Conference, a national conference of "democratic" organizations convened to reconsider the government question, to abjure further coalition with the Cadets and to establish exclusively socialist rule. A hastily convened secret emergency meeting of the party Central Committee unceremoniously rejected Lenin's directives within hours of their receipt. For the Bolsheviks, this was just as well. Not long after the October Revolution, Lenin himself acknowledged this. The party was saved from likely disaster by the stubborn resistance of national and lower-level Bolsheviks on the spot who, like Kamenev, were primarily concerned with building the broadest possible support for the formation of an exclusively socialist government or were skeptical of Lenin's strategy of mobilizing the masses behind an "immediate bayonet charge" independent of the soviets.

In part as a consequence of their continuing interaction with workers, soldiers, and sailors, these leaders on the scene possessed a more realistic appreciation than Lenin of the limits of the party's influence and authority among the Petrograd lower classes, as well as of their allegiance to soviets as legitimate democratic organs in which all genuinely revolutionary groups would work to fulfill the revolution. They were forced to recognize that by appearing to usurp the prerogatives of the soviets they risked losing a good deal of their hardwon popular support and suffering a defeat as great as, if not greater than, the one they had suffered in July. Therefore, after hopes that the Democratic State Council would initiate fundamental political change were dashed, they reoriented their tactics toward the formation of an exclusively socialist government at another All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, which at the insistence of leftist delegates to the Democratic State Conference was scheduled for early November (late October O.S.). At the same time, the Bolshevik Central Committee initiated steps to convene an emergency party congress just prior to the start of the soviet congress. This was to be the forum in which the party's revolutionary tactics, and the closely related question of the nature and makeup of a future government, were to be decided.

Meanwhile, Lenin had moved to the Petrograd suburbs and intensified pressure for immediate revolutionary action. As a result, on October 23 (October 10 O.S.), the Bolshevik Central Committee, with Lenin in attendance, resolved to make the seizure of power "the order of the day." However, in the days immediately following, it became clear that most Petrograd workers and soldiers would not participate in a unilateral call to arms against the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks prior to the start of the national Congress of Soviets, scheduled to open on November 7 (October 25 O.S.). Kamenev, the leader of party moderates, was so alarmed by the possibility that the party would act precipitously that he virtually disclosed the Central Committee's decision in Novaia zhizn (New Life), the Left Menshevik newspaper edited by the writer Maxim Gorky.

Consequently, with considerable wavering caused largely by pressure for bolder direct action from Lenin, the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd pursued a strategy based on the following general principles: (1) that the soviets (because of their stature in the eyes of workers and soldiers), and not party groups, should be employed for the over-throw of the Provisional Government; (2) that for the broadest support, any attack on the government should be masked as a defensive operation on behalf of the soviet; (3) that action should therefore be delayed until a suitable excuse for giving battle presented itself; (4) that to undercut potential resistance and to maximize the possibility of success, every opportunity should be utilized to subvert the authority of the Provisional Government peacefully; and (5) that the formal removal of the existing government should be linked with and legitimized by the decisions of the Second Congress of Soviets. At the time, Lenin mocked this approach. However, considering the development of the revolution to that point, as well as the views of a majority of leading Bolsheviks around the country, it appeared as a natural, realistic response to the prevailing correlation of forces and popular mood.

Between November 3 and 6 (October 2124 O.S.), a majority of Bolshevik leaders staunchly resisted immediate revolutionary action in favor of preparing for a decisive struggle against the Provisional Government at the congress. Among other things, in the party's press and at huge public rallies they attacked the policies of the Provisional Government and reinforced popular support for the removal of the Provisional Government by the Congress of Soviets. Moreover, they reached out to the Menshevik-Internationalists and Left SRs. Simultaneously, using as an excuse the Provisional Government's announced intention of transferring the bulk of the Petrograd garrison to the front, and cloaking every move as a defensive measure against the counterrevolution, they utilized the Bolshevik-dominated

Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet (MRC), established to monitor the government's troop dispositions, to take control of most Petrograd-based military units. Weapons and ammunition from the city's main arsenals were distributed to supporters. Although the MRC did not cross the boundary between moves that could be justified as defensive and moves that might infringe on the prerogatives of the congress, for practical purposes the Provisional Government was disarmed without a shot being fired.

In response, early on the morning of November 6 (October 24 O.S.), only hours before the scheduled opening of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a majority of which was poised to vote in favor of forming an exclusively socialist, Soviet government, Kerensky took steps to suppress the left. Orders were issued for the rearrest of leading Bolsheviks who had been detained after the July uprising and released at the time of the Kornilov Affair. Loyalist military school cadets and shock battalions from the suburbs were called to the Winter Palace, the seat of the government, and the main Bolshevik newspaper, Rabochii put (Workers' Path), was shut down. Not until these steps had been taken, and even then only after Lenin's personal direct intervention in the party's headquarters at Smolny, did the military action against the Provisional Government begin, action that Lenin had been demanding for a month. This occurred before dawn on November 7 (October 25 O.S.). At that time, all pretense that the MRC was simply defending the revolution and attempting primarily to maintain the status quo pending expression of the congress's will was abruptly dropped. Rather, an open, all-out effort was launched to confront congress delegates with the overthrow of the Provisional Government prior to the start of their deliberations.

During the morning of November 7, military detachments supporting the MRC seized strategically important bridges, key government buildings,

rail and power stations, communication facilities, and the State bank without bloodshed. They also laid siege to the Winter Palace, defended by only meager, demoralized, and constantly dwindling forces. Kerensky managed to flee to the front in search of troops before the ring was closed. The "storming of the Winter Palace," dramatically depicted in an Eisenstein film, was a Soviet myth. After nightfall, the historic building was briefly bombarded by cannon from the Fortress of Peter and Paul and occupied with little difficulty, after which remaining members of the government were arrested.

The Soviet Congress was faced with a fait accompli. Lenin proclaimed the demise of the Provisional Government even before the congress opened that night. The thunder of cannon punctuated its first sessions. The effect was precisely what Lenin hoped for and what Bolshevik moderates, Menshevik-Internationalists, and Left SRs feared.

The Mensheviks, SRs, and even the Menshevik-Internationalists responded to Bolshevik violence by walking out of the congress. Lenin now superintended passage of the revolutionary Bolshevik program by the rump congress and the appointment of an interim Soviet national government (the Soviet of People's Commissars or Sovnarkom ) made up exclusively of Bolsheviks.

Still, as delegates departed Smolny at the close of the Second Congress on the morning of November 9 (October 27 O.S.), the vast majority of them, most Bolsheviks included, expected that all genuine revolutionary groups would unite behind the interim government they had created and that it would quickly be reconstructed according to the Bolshevik pre-October platform: that is, as an exclusively socialist, Soviet coalition government reflecting the relative strength of the various socialist parties originally in the congress and supportive of its revolutionary decrees. Important exceptions to

Bolshevik leaders holding this views included Lenin and Trotsky who, having successfully engineered the overthrow of the Provisional Government before the start of the Congress of Soviets, were now most concerned to retain complete freedom of action at virtually any price. Most departing delegates also believed that the new government would in any case yield its authority to the Constituent Assembly, scheduled to be elected at the end of November.

Among political parties seeking to restore a broad socialist alliance and to restructure the Sovnarkom in the immediate aftermath of the Second Congress, most prominent were the Menshevik-Internationalists and the Left SRs; the latter were especially important to the success of the revolution because of their growing strength among peasants in the countryside, where Bolshevik influence was critically weak. Among labor organizations seeking to play a similar role was the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Union of Railway Workers (Vikzhel). Vikzhel announced that it would declare an immediate nationwide rail stoppage if the Bolsheviks did not participate in negotiations to create a homogeneous socialist government responsible to the soviets and including all socialist groups.

Under Vikzhel's aegis, intensive talks were held in Petrograd November 1118 (October 29November 5 O.S.). With Kamenev in charge of negotiations for the Bolsheviks, they began auspiciously. Indeed, on November 2 even the Bolshevik press reported that the discussions were on the verge of success. However, they ultimately foundered, primarily because of such factors as the impossibly high demands made by the moderate socialists (essentially requiring repudiation of Soviet power and most of the accomplishments of the Second Congress, as well as the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from any future government), the defeat by Soviet forces of an internal insurrection and of loyalist Cossack units outside Petrograd, and the consolidation of Soviet power in Moscow. These factors immeasurably strengthened Lenin's and Trotsky's hands, enabling them to torpedo the Vikzhel talks. During the runup to the Constituent Assembly in December, Bolshevik moderates made a valiant bid to steer the party's delegation toward support of its right to define Russia's future political system. However, by then the moderates had been squeezed out of the party leadership, and this effort also failed. All of this made a long and bitter civil war inevitable.

the significance of the october revolution

The October Revolution cannot be adequately characterized as either a military coup d'état or a popular uprising (although it contained elements of both). Its roots are to be found in the peculiarities of prerevolutionary Russia's political, social, and economic development, as well as in Russia's wartime crisis. At one level, it was the culminating event in a drawn-out battle between leftists and moderates: on the one hand, an expanding spectrum of left socialist groups supported by the vast majority of Petrograd workers, soldiers, and sailors dissatisfied by the results of the February revolution; and on the other, the increasingly isolated liberalmoderate socialist alliance that had taken control of the Provisional Government and national Soviet leadership during the February days. By the time the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened on November 7 (October 25 O.S.), the relatively peaceful victory of the former was all but assured. At another level, the October Revolution was a struggle, initially primarily within the Bolshevik leadership, between proponents of a multi-party, exclusively socialist government that would lead Russia to a Constituent Assembly in which socialists would have a dominating voice, and Leninists, who ultimately favored violent revolutionary action as the best means of striking out on an ultra-radical, independent revolutionary course in Russia and triggering decisive socialist revolutions abroad.

Muted for much of 1917, this conflict erupted with greatest force in the wake of the February Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of the July uprising, and during the periods immediately preceding and following the October Revolution. Such factors as the walkout of Mensheviks and SRs from the Second AllRussian Congress of Soviets, prompted by the belated military operations pressed by Lenin and precipitated by Kerensky; the adoption of the Bolshevik program at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets; the intransigence of the moderate socialists at the Vikzhel talks; and the Bolsheviks' first military victories over loyalist forces decisively undermined the efforts of moderate Bolsheviks to achieve a multiparty, socialist democracy and facilitated the rapid ascendancy of Leninist authoritarianism. In this sense, the October Revolution extinguished prospects for the development of a Western-style democracy in Russia for the better part of a century. Also, in the immediate post-revolutionary years, it led to the catastrophic Russian civil war. Finally, it laid the foundation for Stalinism and the Cold War. However, despite these outcomes, the October revolution was in large measure a valid expression of popular aspirations.

See also: bolshevism; civil war of 19171922; february revolution; july days; lenin, vladimir ilich; revolution of 1905; trotsky, leon davidovich


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Alexander Rabinowitch

October Revolution

views updated Jun 27 2018

October Revolution See Russian Revolution