The October Revolution is an extremely important event in world history. It was the first successful workers revolution. But how did it all happen? This is a brief overview of the complicated history of the October Revolution.
The Russian Empire was a totalitarian police state ruled by an absolute monarchy. The country was very backward economically and culturally. Average life expectancy in Russia was about 35 years. Only about 20% of the population knew how to read. The workers and peasants lived horrible lives, without the 8 hour working day, minimum wage laws or basic work safety regulations. There were many large strikes and protests but it was not uncommon that the police would shoot at the demonstrations and kill the strikers.
Despite how big the country was, there was a constant shortage of farm land and also constant famine. This is because most land belonged to the wealthy landlords and rich peasants. Because of technological backwardness, only the softest and most fertile soil could be used, this severely limited the amount of available farm land.
In 1898 the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party is created. Among its founders are people like Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. This was a marxist party, that wanted to overthrow the monarchy and bring about socialism. However during the course of the struggle there is a lot of disagreement about when this goal is to be implemented and how. In 1903 there emerges a split in the party: two factions emerge: the Mensheviks led by Martov and the Bolsheviks led by Lenin.
During the years, although Lenin and many others first anticipated the two groups could merge again, the split ends up worsening and the two factions become separate parties: Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Mensheviks) and Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks).
The main differences between the groups were the following:
1. The Bolsheviks wanted an organizationally united party of serious revolutionaries while the Mensheviks wanted a more loose reformist type party.
2. Both parties agreed that the next course of action was to overthrow the monarchy and carry out the so-called “bourgeois-democratic revolution”. This would make Russia a capitalist parliamentary democracy. However the Mensheviks argued that the class to lead the revolution was the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class. The bourgeois class served this function in the French Revolution. The Bolsheviks disagreed, they thought the capitalists couldn’t be trusted to carry out the democratic revolution, they were weaker then in France, they allied with the monarchy and feared the workers and peasants. In fact, the Bolshevik leader Lenin argued that the Russian proletariat was much stronger and more developed then the French proletariat of the late 1700s and therefore should lead the democratic revolution, and not merely support it.
3. Lastly, the Mensheviks didn’t think Russia was ready for Socialism, in their opinion the workers could never take power in Russia until after a long time of capitalist and parliamentary development. Even though the debate about workers revolution and socialism would only come about fully later, this attitude relates to the Menshevik position that the workers shouldn’t lead the democratic revolution, but only support the capitalist class against the monarchy.
In 1905 there is an attempt at the democratic revolution. There are massive protests all over the country, mutinies in the army and the people organize public meetings called “soviets” or councils, which would get together and discuss what to do. The revolution eventually fails. It won some democratic liberties from the Tsar, but those liberties would be constantly under attack by the monarchy afterwards. This revolution is seen as a dress-rehearsal for the later revolution.
In 1914 World War 1 begins, and launches Russia into chaos. The economy is ruined by the war, there is a shortage of food and large amounts of the population are drafted to fight in the war. The war is seen by many people, especially the socialist, as an unjust imperialist conquest, where millions of poor and working class people from different countries had to die for the profits and wealth of the capitalist and monarchist governments of their countries.
The attitude towards the war ends up splitting the international socialist movement. The so-called “2nd international working men’s association”. Many parties initially opposed the war, but then chose to support their own government in it, to protect their country from the other imperialist powers. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionaries saw this as treachery. Surely, if everyone only supports their own imperialist government in an imperialist war, it doesn’t do anything to stop the war. They called for “turning the imperialist war to a class war”, friendship between the workers of the various countries, and unity against the capitalist governments of all warring countries. This led to the splitting of the international.
In February 1917 the Russian monarchy is overthrown. This leads to the creation of the Russian Provisional Government, consisting of the capitalist Cadet party, the Socialist-Revolutionary party or SR and the Mensheviks.
The Bolsheviks initially gave “conditional support” for the Provisional Government, meaning they supported it to the degree that it carried out the democratic reforms and other policies demanded by the population. However it soon became very evident the Provisional Government was a failure.
The Provisional government refused to carry out land-reform. It was necessary to prevent famine and reduce the land shortage, but it would have meant going against the power of the landlords.
The Provisional government also refused to impose stricter regulations on trading and the economy. This would have been necessary to prevent economic disaster, but it would have meant going against the capitalists who greatly profited from the war and the chaos.
Lastly, the Provisional government supported the war. They advocated a “war to a finish”, meaning until they won. It became evident that Russia was losing the war, however the Provisional government was still committed to fulfill the treaties and agreements with their allies in World War 1.
Clearly, supposed democratic government, with a quite a few self-proclaimed socialists in it should act in this way. The Bolsheviks were quick to point out that the Provisional government acts exactly like the Tsarist government, which also sided with the landlords, capitalists and started the imperialist war. The Provisional government was continuing Tsarist policy.
In April 1917, Vladimir Lenin returns to Russia from exile and puts forward his “april theses”, political proposals which call for the overthrow of the Provisional government.
The Bolsheviks put forward their slogans:
“Down with the provisional government”
“Down with the capitalist ministers”
“Factories for the workers, land to the peasants, end to the imperialist war,”
“Peace, Bread & Land”
In June the capital city, Petrograd (now called St. Petersburg) has municipal elections. Bolsheviks achieve a massive victory, growing from essentially nothing to one of the biggest parties. The so-called “defencist bloc” still gets the majority. This bloc consisted of the SR-party and mensheviks. Defencism, meant that they supported the war effort. Biggest loser of the election was the Cadet party, which achieved only 15% of the vote and lost its power as the biggest party.
On July 1, Russia launches an offensive on the front, this is known as the “kerensky offensive” or the “July offensive.” The war was going badly and casualties were mounting for Russia, the blood-thirstyness of the imperialists and the Provisional government were very evident.
On July 3-4, there is a massive demonstration in Petrograd, of hundreds of thousands of people. Among the demonstrators are armed soldiers who have come from the front to demand change and revolution. The Bolsheviks urge caution and say that the demonstration should be peaceful and organized. They oppose bringing weapons to the demonstration and say that they are not yet strong enough for a revolution. The workers and soldiers decide to bring weapons despite the advice of the Bolsheviks but the Bolsheviks still take part in the demonstrations to lend support to the workers.
The workers and soldiers carry Bolshevik slogans “end the war”, “peace, bread and land”. There is a government crack down against the demonstrators. Machine guns shoot in the crowd, leaving countless dead. The Bolsheviks are now seen as a serious threat by the government. A warrant is issued for Lenin’s arrest, he is forced into hiding. Bolshevik newspaper Pravda is banned, their printing plant and party offices are destroyed. This period of reppression is known as the “July Days”. The Provisional government restores the death penalty on the front, against soldiers who disobey orders.
The Bolsheviks lose a lot of their forces, and many of their important resources. They begin publishing their newspapers under new names to avoid censorship. Despite all their difficulties the workers now support them more then ever, the Provisional government is exposed as a supporter of the capitalist elite and the imperialists. The Provisional government starts forming stronger ties with the old capitalist party, the Cadets to make up for the support they’ve lost from the workers.
In August, there is an attempted coup against the Provisional government, called the “Kornilov Affair”. Kornilov was a Whige Guard general in the Russian army, who wanted to institute military dictatorship and strong rule of law, to stop the chaos in Russia. In other words, complete counter-revolution, end to the demonstrations, end to democracy, end to the working class movement.
The railway workers strike and don’t transport his troops, and the workers and soldiers of Petrograd form armed Red Guard units and take up the defense of Petrograd against Kornilov. Kornilov’s coup ends in failure.
After the overthrow of the monarchy formation of soviets had begun again in all large cities, but for the time being their leadership would be predominantly menshevik.
In September the Bolsheviks gain the majority in the Petrograd Soviet and soon after in the soviets of Moscow and other large cities. The Soviets already carry out many important functions in the cities as the Russian government is incapable of doing so. The Soviets even organized the defense of Petrograd. As the economy is in ruins and the war effort is failing more people turn towards the Soviets.
The 6th Bolshevik party congress had agreed that they should carry out an armed revolution. In October the Petrograd Soviet creates a Military Revolutionary Committee. These special bodies are formed all over the country connected with each soviet in each city. The Menshevik and SR minorities in the soviets opposed revolution, but the SR party splits. The “left-SR” group sides with the Bolsheviks.
The Bolshevik soldiers organization takes over the garrison. On October 24 the Military Revolutionary Committee occupies the telegraph, the telephone and other important buildings. The cruiser Aurora, which is controlled by Bolshevik sailors, fires a shot to signal the beginning of the revolution. The workers and soldiers storm the winter palace. The same evening there is a congress of Soviets, where delegates arrive from all over the country. This congress elects the new Russian government, elected by the soviets of workers and soldiers, the Soviet Government. The October Revolution has taken power.
This would lead to a civil war where the Capitalists try to rescue their power. Where 14 capitalist governments including the USA, Great Britain, France, Japan, Poland and many others invaded Soviet Russia to destroy the Soviet government. But they failed, and the soviet union was created.
The significance of the October Revolution cannot be overstated. It showed that a revolution by the ordinary people is possible. It showed that capitalism in the end, is incapable of solving its internal contradictions. Despite getting moderate leftists into the government, the policy was as imperialist, profit driven and anti-popular as before. The moderate leftists didn’t improve capitalism, they were used by capitalism. Only revolution stopped Russia’s involvement in the World War, carried out land reform and dealt with the crisis of unregulated capitalism, and began the process of building a new economic model which would serve the needs and interests of the people, not profits.