Abridged from a talk by Deirdre Griswold, Workers World editor in chief, at a WWP meeting April 6 in New York.
There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The first was called the February Revolution and the second the October Revolution, although the date falls on Nov. 7 by our calendar.
Between February and October 1917 there was an extraordinary period in Russia, when the great masses of people were awakened to the possibility that they could fundamentally change the conditions of their lives.
The first revolution in February started with a huge demonstration of women textile workers who struck on International Women’s Day. Within weeks, the people overthrew the czar and ushered in a period of democracy. Over the next eight months, millions became active in organizations that would shape the future of the country. They were called soviets, which is the Russian word for people’s councils. We might call them people’s assemblies. There were soviets of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors.
The soviets were both an arena for political debate and a place where the people could express their will in democratic votes — and attempt to carry out what they voted for.
What drove the people to a passionate desire for change?
First were the terrible conditions of exploitation, in the workplaces and on the land. Then there was the brutal oppression by the czarist regime and its secret police.
But on top of all that, which had been going on for years, was a huge new factor: war.
The Russian ruling classes went into World War I for the same reasons as the other capitalist powers: to grab territory and riches for themselves. They expected to come out of the war immensely fattened by taking over resources and land from the losing side. Their primary foe was Germany, whose rulers had the same objective.
But of course it wasn’t the rulers who fought and died in the war. It was the workers and peasants, and they died by the millions.
There was a Socialist International in Europe at that time, made up of parties in all the different countries. Before the war started, these socialist parties had met several times and passed resolutions opposing the coming war.
But when the war came, almost all these socialist parties capitulated to the pressure of “patriotism.” Where they had elected deputies in the parliaments, particularly in Germany, Britain and France, these deputies voted for war credits — that is, they voted the immense funds for war that the governments requested, although the war did cause splits in some of these parties.
What followed was four years of the greatest slaughter Europe had ever seen, with 17 million dead and 20 million wounded, all for the benefit of the ruling classes.
But there was one small group of European socialists who in 1914 had refused to support this interimperialist war. The leading figure in it was Vladimir Lenin, head of the Social Democratic Party in Russia, known as the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war meant jail or exile for many of the leaders. But as the war dragged on, deepening the misery of the people, the Bolshevik Party won respect for its principled stand.
By 1917, the people of Russia — and especially the soldiers — had become thoroughly anti-war. After democracy was proclaimed in the February revolution, the people hoped and expected that Russia would pull out of the bloody conflict still raging in Europe. But the government that took over, headed by Alexander Kerensky, was weak. It stayed in the war and became increasingly unpopular.
This was the situation when, in early April 1917, Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland. He was able to come back by negotiating with Germany, which allowed him to cross Germany in a sealed train so there was no chance of him agitating the population against the war.
As soon as he arrived in Russia, he immediately gave a speech to the All-Russia Conference of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on April 4. It was then published in the party newspaper, Pravda.
Lenin spelled out in detail exactly what the party should do:
‘The April Theses’
“1) In our attitude towards the war, which under the new [provisional] government of Lvov and Co. unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war owing to the capitalist nature of that government, not the slightest concession to ‘revolutionary defensism’ is permissible. …
“In view of the undoubted honesty of those broad sections of the mass believers in revolutionary defensism who accept the war only as a necessity, and not as a means of conquest, in view of the fact that they are being deceived by the bourgeoisie, it is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them, to explain the inseparable connection existing between capital and the imperialist war, and to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace, a peace not imposed by violence. …
“2) The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution — which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie — to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.
“This transition is characterized, on the one hand, by a maximum of legally recognized rights (Russia is now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world); on the other, by the absence of violence towards the masses, and, finally, by their unreasoning trust in the government of capitalists, those worst enemies of peace and socialism.
“This peculiar situation demands of us an ability to adapt ourselves to the special conditions of Party work among unprecedentedly large masses of proletarians who have just awakened to political life.
“3) No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.
“4) Recognition of the fact that in most of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority, as against a bloc of all the petty-bourgeois opportunist elements … who have yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie and spread that influence among the proletariat.
“The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses. …
“5) Not a parliamentary republic — to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step — but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.
“Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.
“The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker.
“6) The weight of emphasis in the agrarian program to be shifted to the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies.
“Confiscation of all landed estates.
“Nationalization of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. The organization of separate Soviets of Deputies of Poor Peasants. The setting up of a model farm on each of the large estates. …
“7) The immediate union of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.
“8) It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.
“Convene a new party congress and change the program to include the points above.
“Change of party’s name: Instead of ‘Social-Democracy,’ whose official leaders throughout the world have betrayed socialism and deserted to the bourgeoisie, we must call ourselves the Communist Party.”
Well. That is a program for a real revolution.
We study these points today not because they are a timeless blueprint for a revolutionary program. Not at all.
There is no such blueprint. Marxism above all recognizes that everything is in a process of change, of coming into being, and passing away. We must analyze what is the current reality and base our program on that.
Lenin himself constantly updated his analysis of what had to be done. When he delivered his speech on April 4, he stunned a lot of the leaders in his own party.
In fact, one of his points of difference with Leon Trotsky back in 1905 had been over what would be the various stages in the revolutionary process in Russia. At that time, Lenin had believed it necessary for Russia to go through a period of bourgeois, capitalist development before the working class and the poor peasants could think of taking power and reorganizing society on a socialist basis.
The war changed everything
But the war had changed everything. When Lenin introduced the “April Theses,” it was two months after the overthrow of the czar and the establishment of a democratic government — democratic in form, but still dominated by the capitalist bourgeoisie. In those two months, the bourgeois democrats had shown themselves incapable of getting Russia out of the war, incapable of breaking up the landed estates, incapable of reorganizing the economy and incapable of setting up a state apparatus strong enough to fight off attempts at a counterrevolution by the monarchists and aristocrats.
All this called for a new understanding of what had to be done.
Trotsky, since 1905, had argued that the workers must take the power in Russia in order to carry out even bourgeois democratic reforms. So now he and Lenin were in agreement.
But Trotsky also changed his views in early 1917. Earlier, he had differed with Lenin on the question of what kind of party was needed to carry out the revolution. He was won over to Lenin’s views on the need for a disciplined, combat party based on democratic centralism.
It was on the basis of the “April Theses” that Trotsky and his grouping joined the Bolshevik Party and played an important role preparing for the revolutionary seizure of power in October.
The masses of the people, seen especially in the constant shifts to the left in the Soviets, pushed ever harder for a revolutionary change that would take the power away from their oppressors.
At times the Bolshevik Party even had to hold back the workers in key cities like Petrograd, so that those elsewhere in the country who were slower to understand what was happening could catch up — and join the revolutionary movement, which they did.
In studying the past, we can gain a better understanding of what a revolution is, how it happens and, most important, how it can succeed.