What We Didn’t Learn About the Russian Revolution in School

 

The History of the Russian Revolution

By Leon Trotsky (1930)

Free link: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/

Book Review

In Peoples History of the Russian Revolution, author Neil Faulkner strongly recommends readers also read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (on which Peoples History is based). In this epic volume, Trotsky painstakingly assembles meeting notes (by friends and enemies of the Bolshevik Party) of the Petrograd Soviet, the Russian Duma and the Bolshevik Central Committee, which he intersperses with historical footnotes and political analyses.

The resulting narrative reveals how the Bolshevik Party systematically used the period of Dual Government (between February and October 1917*) to build Bolshevik majorities in the soviets and workers and soldiers committee throughout Russia. At the time of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks didn’t enjoy a majority in the peasant committees or soviets. However they advocated a similar land reform agenda as the Social Revolutionary Party that controlled rural Russia, and Lenin made initial concessions by allowing peasants to redistribute the landowner estates they seized as individual private plots (instead of collectivizing them).

Trotsky’s overview of this period differs greatly from what we are taught in US schools and universities. Some of the surprising facts I gleaned from this book are

  1. Owing to Bolshevik/Left Social Revolutionary majorities, Russian workers won the right legislatively to establish a worker-run state but were blocked by reactionary monarchists, landowners, militarists and their political puppets from implementing this reform. Workers would eventually be forced to arm themselves and forcibly seize Petrograd’s factories, utilities and instruments of state to make this happen.
  2. The Bolshevik Party didn’t have sufficient strength to forcibly seize all the factories and farms on behalf of the workers. The principal effect of the October Revolution was to give workers and peasants permission to seize factories and transform them into worker-run cooperatives. By October 1917, workers and peasants had already seized multiple factories and estates all across Russia. The creation of a formal worker-run state merely gave permission for all Russian workers and peasants to do so.
  3. The grassroots worker and peasant committees were far more militant than any of the soviets, just as grassroots members were far more militant than the Bolshevik Central Committee.
  4. Unlike the February Revolution, which looked like a typical insurrection with thousands of workers launching a general strike and taking to the street, the October Revolution was virtually invisible to the majority of Petrograd** residents. Except for 25,000-30,0000 workers and renegade soldiers and sailors who made up the Red Guard, Petrograd workers went to their factories and shopkeepers opened for business. Most government troops who weren’t at the front had either mutinied or deserted. Thus when armed Red Guards showed up at the post office, telegraph office, telephone exchange, power station, state bank, etc. the bureaucrats in charge quietly surrendered control of these institutions.
  5. The October Revolution was virtually bloodless, except for the seizure of the Winter Palace. Trotsky blames the loss of life on both sides on a botched military operation and unstrategic delay that gave government ministers the opportunity to send to the front for military reinforcement.

For people who aren’t inclined to read the entire book, I strongly recommend Chapter 43 The Art of Insurrection and Chapter 44 The Conquest of the Capital The Conquest of the Capitol


*See Peoples History of the Russian Revolution for an explanation of dual power.

**In 2017 Petrograd was the capitol of Russian and the seat of power.

A People’s History of the Russian Revolution

A People’s History of the Russian Revolution

by Neil Faulkner

Pluto Press (2017)

Book Review

This book corrects the common misportrayal of the Russian Revolution as an event imposed on workers by a Bolshevik vanguard of self-appointed intellectuals. In his careful reconstruction of the origin to the October 2017 insurgency, Faulkner demonstrates quite ably that the Russian Revolution was a true example of mass democracy executed by ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers. After 1920, it would be destroyed by the most murderous counterrevolution in history.*

In Faulkner’s view, Russia’s revolution took nearly 100 years. It was Russian soldiers exposed to Western liberal democracy during the Napoleonic wars who began the first underground networks against czarist totalitarianism. As Russia began to industrialize in the late 1800s, workers engaged in regular mass strikes to protest starvation conditions. The brutal government repression that greeted these strikes led to the formation of a number of revolutionary parties as workers began to demand political change as well.

Organizing in a Police State

The Bolshevik Party first came together in the years 1899. Organizing a mass democratic party in a police state is extremely difficult. The strategy Lenin and other party leaders employed was to start a newspaper, which they printed abroad and smuggled into Russia via underground groups. Avoiding police infiltration police required a large degree of decentralization and independent function of workers’ committees and subcommittees. Eventually a large underground network arose around distribution of the party newspaper.

Part of Bolshevik strategy was to foster strong relationships with the military. The eventual success of the October 1917 would depend on soldiers’ refusal to support the Provisional Government.

All the revolutionary activity, starting with the failed 1905 Revolution, began as spontaneous strikes and demonstrations launched by workers themselves to protest their abominable living and working conditions. The February 1917 revolution, in which Tsar Nicholas II was deposed, began as a bread strike led by women.

Dual Power by the Duma and Workers’ Soviets

The Tsar’s removal led to dual power, in which three successive provisional governments were jointly run by the pro-war Duma, made up of bourgeois liberals and the Petrograd Soviet consisting of delegates of democratic assemblies which had formed in factories, barracks and battleships. The Duma had no real power as they could only enact measures approved by the soviets.

A series of mass military mutinies led to the collapse of the the first and second Provisional Government in April and June. During the 3rd Provisional Government, increasing government repression led to a surge in membership in both the Bolshevik Party and local soviets.

At Lenin’s urging, soviets** across Russia overruled the Bolshevik Central Committee in September 2017 and called for a new government run by workers and peasants, as well as mass insurrection. In the end, the soviets would assume power with very little violence by merely disestablishing the 3rd Provisional Government. Owing to mass military defection during 1917, the government was left with no means of defending itself.


*It would take Joseph Stalin, who assumed power after Lenin died in 1922, six years to complete the counterrevolution. He would eventually liquidate the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party. According to Faulkner the great Bolshevik experiment of mass democracy from below officially ended in 1920. Although the Soviet Union would ultimately beat back a military invasion by White Russians, British and Americans, this civil war, on top of a brutal settlement with Germany that devastated Soviet industrial and agricultural capacity, would shatter the Soviet economy. In a desperate hope revolution in other European countries would reopen trade, Lenin officiated over the rise of centralized state control (enforced by the Cheka and the Red Terror) to manage extreme scarcity, malnutrition and epidemic levels of disease.

**The first soviets were formed as a result of the 1905 Revolution.