The Finnish workers’ revolution of 1918

1917 protest rally in Helsinki.

The Communist League of Finland presented the following paper to an international seminar in Mexico City March 8-10, organized by the Workers Party (PT) of Mexico, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Finnish Revolution.  

During the 13 years after 1905, four revolutions occurred in Finland. This was more than in any other country. Yet, just three decades before the 1918 revolution, Finnish working-class consciousness had been at such a low level (unless it was missing altogether) that the ruling classes could only have admired the “unspoiled Finnish worker.”

Finland experienced the first three of the revolutions because it was part of the Russian empire and was located near St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital and the location of decisive revolutionary events. In addition, there were Russian troops and a few thousand Russian workers in Finland.

The fourth of the mentioned revolutions was the actual Finnish revolution that broke out and developed in 1918.  The main reasons for it were class conflicts that were characteristically Finnish. Even then, this purely Finnish revolution that began only after Finland obtained autonomy and separated from Russia, marked — in a way — a continuation of the Russian revolutions experienced in 1917. Just as the October Revolution in Russia would have been impossible without the February Revolution, the Finnish revolution would have been impossible without the October revolution.

After the events of July 1917, Lenin was forced to hide from interim government detectives.  On Aug. 22 he crossed the Finnish border disguised as a locomotive fireman to avoid passport control at the border.

Lenin was aware of the mood of the workers and soldiers in Finland. Shortly before the October Revolution in Russia, he counseled the Finnish Social Democrats that organized workers must immediately take power into their hands. This shows Lenin’s view that the socialist revolution could be carried out in Finland earlier than in Russia, under the shield of Russia’s revolutionary developments. Lenin had presented the same idea in March 1917 in his “Letters from Afar.”

However, the Finnish Social Democrats did not heed Lenin’s advice. First, the socialist revolution in Russia had not yet taken place, and the victory was not yet certain. The Social Democrats did not trust in that victory. In their view, the socialist revolution could win only in the highly developed Western industrial countries and not in backward Russia. Second, revolutionary tactics were foreign to the Finnish Social Democrats, so they simply were unable to apply them immediately and become the first in the world to do so.

On Nov. 1, 1917, when the new parliament met in session, the Social Democratic Party leadership published a programmatic declaration, “We demand,” which set out the basic requirements of the working class.

The bourgeoisie, which had a majority in the parliament, rejected these demands as indecent. A week after the publication of “We demand,” it could already be seen how revolutionary and nonrevolutionary actions diverged when the same kind of political situation prevailed.  Lenin’s tactics led to the world historic victory of the socialist revolution in Russia, but Finnish Social Democratic tactics resulted in the bourgeoisie not paying any attention to the workers’ demands, and the Social Democrats won no successes in the new parliament.

General strike and the Red Guards

The fourth trade union assembly opened in Finland on Nov. 12.  It stated that the position of working people was so desperate and intolerable that if the assembly did not make radical decisions, the workers would take action by themselves. The most urgent issue was the food crisis.  On Nov. 13, the assembly published a declaration that demanded that the parliament give to the Senate that day an order to publish the power law, the 8-hour workday law and the law giving parliament the right to control the government. If this was not done, it said, the workers would begin a general strike and the responsibility would fall on the bourgeoisie.

Since the majority in the bourgeois parliament ignored the workers’ demands, a general strike began in the early hours of Nov. 14. The workers regarded the general strike as the beginning of the proletarian revolution and not merely a suspension of work. They established Red Guard brigades throughout the country. Recruitment agitation was not needed; the brigades were formed naturally when it was announced that workers could enter the Red Guards.

In this situation, information was suddenly spread that the Central Revolutionary Council had decided to end the strike. That seemed incredible and terrible to the working population. After the general strike, the Social Democratic Party leadership rushed to call an extra-party assembly meeting to consider future tactics. The national congress resolution required a vote to determine the majority opinion. Forty-three delegates voted for the dictatorship of the proletariat and 59 voted against it.

Finland’s independence in 1918

After the October Revolution, Finland became a de facto free country, although it was still part of Russia. Leading Soviet government officials stressed that the people of Finland were granted freedom to determine their own destiny. The People’s Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, said that the Soviet government granted the peoples belonging to Russia — including the Finnish people — the right to self-determination and that it was ready to implement it. He formulated the guiding principles of the Council of People’s Commissars as follows: “Complete freedom to organize their own lives to the Finnish people as well as to other Russian peoples! Voluntary and honest alliance of the Finnish people with the Russian people! Not any kind of guardianship, no supervision from above with respect to the Finnish people!”

Revolution at midnight

In the last days before the revolution, the Social Democrats still tried to reach a compromise with the bourgeoisie to avoid civil war. Those attempts were expressed in “Worker,” the party’s main newspaper. Of course, the bourgeoisie did not intend to comply with such “childish” requests.

On Jan. 26, the Workers’ Executive Committee ordered the Workers’ Guards to prepare to conquer all government agencies and strategic targets. The order said that the Workers’ Guards’ mobilization would be initiated at midnight and was to be completed within three days. The people specified in the workers’ administration’s special lists were to be arrested and transported to places where the Guards would be responsible for the safety of detainees and provide good treatment. Then, after a specific order was given to begin the revolution, the Workers’ Guards would — with the presence of people designated as commissars — take over the parliament, university, provincial governments, supreme government bodies and banks.

However, the revolutionaries had already shown insufficient flexibility and determination by allowing bourgeois Senate members to hide. Three senators narrowly escaped the revolution and fled to Vaasa on the west coast in order to set up the “White” [reactionary] government. If at the revolution’s start in Helsinki, the “Reds” [revolutionaries] would have been more daring, they probably would have succeeded in arresting all members of the Senate. The imprisonment of government officials could also have ended the war quite differently.

Counterrevolutionaries held four-fifths of the country’s territory. This figure may be misleading.  These areas were enormous and made up of nearly uninhabited plains on the inside of the Arctic Circle in Lapland, as well as other sparsely populated areas. Reds held the industrial part of the country and its economic and cultural centers, which were inhabited by almost half of Finland’s population.

Reds act on food and land crises

The revolutionary government immediately began to vigorously resolve the dire food crisis. It established urgent measures to purchase and transport grain from Russia. The Soviet government was ready to help, and grain sent from Russia soon dampened severe food shortages in revolutionary Finland. The revolutionary government did not betray the hopes of hungry people.  It organized food inventories without fear of inspecting the bourgeoisie’s houses, worked to purchase grain from abroad, allocated central food distribution cards and took care of the workers’ children.

The next major issue concerned the poor peasantry. More than 100,000 small tenants were proclaimed independent of the big landowners. The revolutionary government decreed that crofters and cottagers were allowed “without payment of rent to manage and cultivate freely the pieces of land they have occupied with all the benefits that are included.”

The tax system was reformed in a class-conscious manner. Taxation was made progressive.  All of the tax burden was imposed on the owners in the population, especially the wealthy.  The poorest people were fully liberated from taxes.

The revolutionary government published several laws in accordance with working people’s interests. Although the Finnish working class had gained political rights for women in 1906, some obstacles prevented women from reaching the status of public officials alongside men. The revolution took a significant step in demolishing women’s de facto inequalities and expanded their democratic rights.

Finland’s revolutionary leaders’ grasp of the importance of the state — over which they had a fierce battle — was reflected in the draft constitution published Feb. 23. According to the proposal, Finland was a republic in which all power belonged to the people. The highest power belonged to the unicameral parliament comprised of 200 members. The parliament would be elected by direct vote of its constituency, and the corresponding number of representatives would be chosen from the population.

The people had the right to make new legislative proposals not only through their elected representatives, but also directly where a bill was signed by 10,000 voters. Parliament was obligated to deal with these bills urgently. The law could also provide for a referendum, which required support by at least one-third of Parliament’s members or at least 5 percent of voters in previous elections.

The constitutional resolution was ultra-democratic, somewhat according to the Swiss model. However, according to Otto Wille Kuusinen, author of the constitution, it lacked “the most important guarantees of real democracy, such as takeover of large industrial enterprises and banks to [be possessed by] … [the] people’s state, as well as requisition of large farms and timber companies, lands and forests, etc.”

An agreement between the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and Finland’s Socialist Workers Republic on the strengthening of friendship and fraternity was signed in St. Petersburg on March 1. It was the world’s first agreement between socialist countries. It rested on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, and strengthened fraternal relations between the two countries.

Germany’s intervention and defeat of the revolution

P.E. Svinhufvud from the White government wrote to the German government on Feb.15:  “Foreign powers’ intervention is absolutely necessary; [probably mainly by] Germany because it is the most functional and can provide the quickest and most effective assistance, but also the Scandinavian countries, if any help from their part is expected. We therefore ask the protection of the foreign powers of life and property in southern Finland; plead for the protection from the red tyranny and against the traitors’ government of Russia.”

As an imperialist state, Germany naturally took advantage of the Finnish bourgeoisie’s desperate situation. It declared that an essential condition for Finland to receive aid was to sign agreements that made Finland dependent on Germany. Whites were ready for anything. On March 7, the German and White Finnish representatives signed a peace agreement between Germany and Finland, a Commerce and Navigation Treaty and protocols for the completion of each agreement.

The Reds’ victory in Finland would have meant the spread of revolutionary fire to the West, as conditions became increasingly favourable for revolution in Germany. Germany’s intervention was also directed against revolutionary Russia. Reactionary forces in Germany assumed that revolutionary Russia was a threat to the internal political and social power of the German ruling class.

A German squadron left Danzig on April 1, 1918, comprised of two battleships, three cruisers, ten large ocean-going vessels, mass transport ships, minesweepers and motor torpedo boats.  Two days later, it appeared in the port of Hanko, Finland, and the German Baltic Sea division started landing. German reconnaissance was led by General Rüdiger von der Goltz, a reactionary and supporter of the politics of conquest, who later enthusiastically greeted Hitler’s rise to power.

The German invasion endangered Finland’s capital, Helsinki, and other cities in southern Finland.  It took away the Reds’ ability to move additional power from south to Tampere and enabled the Whites to cut off the rail link between Helsinki and Tampere. Women played a  substantial part in the defense of Helsinki.

One participant said that when the battle’s outcome seemed settled and German “liberators” [invaders] attacked the Reds from all sides and occupied the streets, armed women and young girls arrived. Women had been in the Red Guards, but at that moment they arrived in large numbers. Their arrival encouraged and inspired the Red Guard fighters.

Germany’s military intervention caused the defeat of the revolution, as its forces could no longer maintain the upper hand. May Day, the celebratory workers’ day, was one of mourning for the Finnish working class. Their heroic attempt to overthrow the exploiters and take state power failed: The Finnish bourgeoisie and the German interveners jointly suppressed the Finnish revolution.

White terror:  massacre of workers

The bourgeoisie of all countries, especially the Scandinavian countries, celebrated the repression of Finland’s revolution. The revolutionary fire that had started to spread to the West was  under control. The world’s reactionaries thanked imperial Germany and White Finland. Official circles in the United States welcomed these events and thanked White Finland for having “stopped the devastating spread of Bolshevism to the West.”

“The war ended, and the manhunt started. The massacres were carried out daily,” said one witness from the White side. The reactionary White terror was on such a brutal scale that the number of people killed set a record — even compared to the bloody days in May 1871 when the French bourgeoisie celebrated the victory they achieved over the Paris Commune.

In Finland the terror raged for months, not only in the capital, but throughout the densely populated south. Punishments were viciously cruel. People who were not even involved in military action were thrown into prison. The fact that a person belonged to the revolutionary class was sufficient justification. The bourgeoisie targeted its revenge on members of the Red Guards and their relatives.  Men, women and children were executed, mostly without trials.

The prisons were so full there was no room to lie down. The prisoners were crammed together without regard to gender or age differences. No mercy was given even to pregnant women, with many forced to give birth in crowded cells without medical assistance. The prisoners, strained by filth and vermin, suffered from hunger, cold and thirst as well, even though lakes and rivers are everywhere in Finland.

There were about 81,000 revolutionary participants in prisons and concentration camps at the beginning of May 1918.  Some 75,575 people were accused of high treason. From June 1, 1918, to April 1, 1919, some 11,783 prisoners died in prisons and concentration camps.

The White Terror’s countless victims included tens of thousands of widows and orphaned children. Particularly shocking was the fate of those children. Their souls were indelibly marked when the reactionaries deprived them of their parents.

Parliament lacked nearly half of its members, yet it ratified the agreements made with Germany. German troops occupied Finland, and General von der Goltz wielded great authority. Reactionary Finns as well as Germans wanted German troops to permanently occupy Finland. Germany kept its troops there not only to satisfy White Finland, but also because that was part of the German ruling class’s plans.

Finland, which gained independence due to Russia’s October Revolution, became a vassal of Germany after the counterrevolution’s victory. German influence on Finnish affairs was shown graphically by such measures as promulgation of the monarchy and selection of a German prince to become Finland’s king. The aim was to ensure Finland’s dependence on Germany for years to come.  Influential members of the Finnish bourgeoisie helped the Germans toward this goal. They aimed to have a firm governing power that would not be dependent on Parliament.

On Oct. 9, 1918, the parliament voted 64-41 to elect the king.  Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse was farcically “elected” king of Finland [but never assumed the throne].  With the assistance of imperial Germany, Finland’s reactionary bourgeoisie’s conspiracy apparently succeeded in effecting a coup d’état. Finland was supposed to be ruled by a German prince.

However, Germany was defeated in World War I, and revolution broke out inside Germany. The German imperialists’ political, military and strategic calculations in carrying out the intervention in Finland failed. What the Finnish bourgeoisie could not have foreseen was that Germany’s defeat in the war saved Finland from becoming fully dependent on Germany and ruled by a German prince.

The revolution had a highly significant effect on the Finnish workers’ movement. The revolution’s defeat marked the end of the old Social Democratic Party. The lessons that were learned in the revolution’s battles proved to the working class that it needed a new type of party.

Leading forces of the old Social Democratic Party thoroughly analyzed and severely criticized mistakes made by the party.  In August 1918, they established a new type of revolutionary Marxist party: the Finnish Communist Party, which became the legal successor of the old Social Democratic Party, carrying on its best traditions. However, public activities by the Finnish Communist Party were then completely unthinkable, becoming possible only after Finland [a German ally] was defeated in World War II in 1944.

Some key personnel:

O.W. Kuusinen (1881-1964) — A leading member of the Social Democratic Party and the 1918 Red government and a founding member of the Communist party of Finland after the defeat of the revolution. A member and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Soviet Union and a top advisor to Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.

C.G.E. Mannerheim (1867-1951) — The head commander of the White Guards, the bourgeois counterrevolutionary army. The president of Finland (1944-46) after Risto Ryti.

P.E. Svinhufvud (1861-1944) — Key member of the White exile Senate and President of Finland 1931-37.

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