In 1917 Finland was part of the Russian empire. Finland was a protectorate of Russia, meaning it didn’t have a military of its own, had no independent foreign policy or economic policy and was ruled by a Russian governor general.
However in the 1905-06 revolution Finland had gained itself some limited democratic rights and some nominal autonomy, its own parliament and senate although they were still under the power of Russia.
It had been recognized by progressive elements for at least a century that Finland had developed into a nation of its own and deserved independence. The Finnish people had their own language, culture and history. There was also the push for more democratic rights and the struggle against monarchist absolutism. The 1905-06 uprisings and demonstrations were a prime example of this.
Although some Finnish capitalists and especially small owners supported independence, as time went on it was more and more the working class movement that led the independence struggle. The capitalist class and nobility of Finland were happy to work with the Russian Tsar and relied on the Tsarist state to crack down on striking workers and poor peasants wanting better working conditions, higher wages and more democratic rights.
The very early Finnish independence movement had been pioneered by bourgeois and petit-bourgeois intellectuals, but in the early 1900s the Finnish capitalist class became more and more opposed to Finnish independence. Leading the independence struggle fell almost exclusively to the proletarians and semi-proletarians.
The February Revolution
After the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917 the Finnish Capitalists allied themselves closely with the Russian provisional government led by Kerensky.
“None of the ruling bourgeois groupings took a pro-independence stance. The Russian provisional government took upon itself the role of the inheritor and continuer of the Tsar-grand duke’s power. It was able to do this with the favorable help of the finnish bourgeoisie.” (Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-18, p.14)
“The legal government… the bourgeois considered to mean the Russian Provisional Government whose legitimacy the Socialists did not recognize.” (Hyvönen, p.19)
The Bolshevik Attitude Towards Finnish Independence
“The Russian Bolsheviks completely supported Finland’s demands for self-determination.” (Hyvönen, s.22)
“I must declare most categorically that we would not be democrats (I say nothing of socialism!) if we did not recognize the right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination. I declare that we would be betraying socialism if we did not do everything to restore fraternal confidence between the workers of Finland and Russia. But everyone knows that the restoration of this confidence is inconceivable unless the right of the Finnish people to free self-determination is firmly recognized. And it is not merely the verbal, even if official, recognition of this right that is important here. What is important is that this verbal recognition will be confirmed by the act of the Council of People’s Commissars, that it will be put into effect without hesitation. For the time for words has passed. The time has come when the old slogan “Workers of all countries, unite!” must be put into effect.
Complete freedom for the Finnish people, and for the other peoples of Russia, to arrange their own life! A voluntary and honest alliance of the Finnish people with the Russian people! No tutelage, no supervision from above, over the Finnish people! These are the guiding principles of the policy of the Council of People’s Commissars.”
~STALIN (Speech delivered at the Congress of the Finnish Social-Democratic Labour Party, Helsingfors Nov. 14, 1917)
The Power Act
“In the elections of 1916 socialists gained a majority in the parliament, 103 seats”(Koskinen, Veljiksi kaikki ihmiset tulkaa: Lohja 1917-18 pp. 14-15)
After the socialists achieved an electoral victory and a majority in the parliament in the 1916 elections they managed to pass the so-called “Power Act” (Valtalaki). This was a bill that declared the finnish parliament independent and sovereign from Russian involvement. That the finnish parliament was the highest authority of Finland. Effectively, this was a declaration of Finnish independence. Before, Finland had been a protectorate of Russia meaning that it had its own parliament and government but these were totally subservient to Russia and all their decisions would have to be approved by Russia. The Power Act declared that Russia no longer had power over Finland and therefore would have made Finland independent.
The capitalist class of Finland instantly opposed this bill. The bill was passed because the socialists had a majority in the parliament but it was never implemented because of’obstructionism by the right-wing bourgeoisie.
“Bourgeois parties refused all struggles in favor of implementing the Power Act – and therefore also any struggles in favor of Finnish self-determination. Afraid of being left alone, without outside help to face the Finnish working class and rural poor the Finnish bourgeoisie threw themselves into the arms of the Russian Provisional Government and abandoned the Power Act, which represented the wishes of the Finnish people for independence and democracy, and which the parliament had accepted.”
The congress of the social-democratic party stated:
“Finnish social-democracy therefore demands… the independence of the Finnish people and state. The Finnish working class can only pursue unhindered class struggle inside a sovereign country.” (Hyvönen, p.33)
“Bolshevik representative Aleksandra Kollontai who was present at the congress stated:
“And we support the granting of independence to Finland, all the way to the right of secession from Russia.”
At that time the bolsheviks were not among the ruling parties in Russia. The bolsheviks could put forward their demands only in their own press and the congress of the soviets.” (Hyvönen, p.33)
“In Russia the bolshevik party was the only political grouping that supported the self-determination of Finland as well as other nationalities. Starting from the marxist principle of national self-determination and developing it to the policy of recognizing the independence of national states and applying it to practice Lenin and Stalin made it clear they defended Finland’s right to independence and opposed the imperialist policy of the Provisional Government as it opposed Finnish independence. The April conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) accepted Lenin’s proposal regarding the National Question which states:
“The right of all the nations forming part of Russia freely to secede and form independent states must be recognised. To deny them this right, or to fail to take measures guaranteeing its practical realisation, is equivalent to supporting a policy of seizure or annexation. Only the recognition by the proletariat of the right of nations to secede can ensure complete solidarity among the workers of the various nations and help to bring the nations closer together on truly democratic lines.”” (Hyvönen, s.20) (7th bolshevik conference, Resolution on the National Question)
“The declaration also concretely put emphasis on the Finnish question in the following way:
“The conflict which has arisen at the present time between Finland and the Russian Provisional Government strikingly demonstrates that denial of the right to free secession leads to a direct continuation of the policy of tsarism.”” (Hyvönen, s.21) (Ibid.)
The Finnish Parliament Elections of 1917
The Russian Provisional government was not happy with the Socialists having a majority in the Finnish parliament and pushing for independence and therefore ordered new elections in October 1. 1917.
The Finnish capitalist class supported the Russian Provisional Government and opposed independence. Bolsheviks and Finnish Socialists supported independence
“The Russian provisional government took upon itself the role of the inheritor and continuer of the Tsar-grand duke’s power. It was able to do this with the favorable help of the finnish bourgeoisie.” (Hyvönen, s.14)
The Finnish capitalists were not opposed to independence in principle but they still saw the Russian capitalist government as an ally just as they had seen the Tsarist government as an ally. They needed the oppressive state apparatus of Russia in order to keep the Finnish workers under control. The Finnish capitalists wanted to insure that none of the demands of the workers would be accepted. Demands like work safety regulations, the 8 hour work day, better pay, equal municipal elections, land reform and better rights for agricultural workers who were at the mercy of the aristocracy and lived in practical feudalism. For this reason the Finnish capitalists were willing to ally with Kerensky and the Russian government instead of supporting Finnish independence.
The Capitalists still wanted to increase their own power compared to Russia. They wanted Finland to keep its nominal autonomy and perhaps expand it. Finland as a Russian protectorate could decide some local questions via its own parliament and senate while Russia still controlled foreign policy, the military, economic policy, trade etc.
If Finland became truly independent the capitalists would have to face the Finnish workers and poor peasants on their own. This is something that they definitely did not want to happen.
One of the Finnish socialist leaders, Otto Wille Kuusinen elaborated the Finnish working class movement’s stance on independence in the following way:
“We cannot grant the Russian government the right to verify Finnish laws, because that way even the most vital reforms that have been decided by our parliament could simply be rejected in Petrograd, to the help and satisfaction of the reactionary bourgeoisie of Finland, as has happened many times before.
We cannot grant the Russian government the right to dissolve the Finnish parliament or decide the duration of the Diet. And it is not right that the Russian government could prevent the expansion of the rights of the Finnish parliament or the further democratization of our state which the interests of the working class demand.
The Russian Government does not have the right in any way to be considered the highest state authority of Finland, instead Finland has its own parliament, its own government, responsible to its parliament and people.
Therefore opposed to the demand of national subjugation put forth by the Russian bourgeosie, Finnish social-democracy puts forth the demand of the independence of the Finnish people. For only in a sovereign land can the Finnish working class without hindrance pursue its class struggle, protect its gains and successfully do its part in the movement for international emancipation of labor.
We want freedom, so that a road would be opened for the people to choose their own destiny and a freedom for the working class to engage in class struggle with a chance to achieve victories without interference from a foreign power.”” (Hyvönen, s.24)
“The Finnish poor do not hate our brother nation Russia, it hates the agitators of national hatred. Finland’s rightful role is to be an independent republic, free next to a free Russia. In economic relations the Finnish people would not attempt to isolate themselves from Russia or to disrupt the interests of Russia. The economic relations of Finland with Russia as with all other countries should be organized based on voluntary agreement, no longer only based on the wishes of the Russian bourgeoisie with the force of subjugation. Otherwise the conflict between Finland and Russia will not end. And Finnish social-democracy wishes this conflict to end, and the formation of mutually beneficial relations for our peoples.” (Minutes of the 9. Congress of the Finnish Social-Democratic Party p.101)” (Hyvönen, s.25)
“The view advocated by Kuusinen represented that proletarian view which had matured during the fight for suffrage according to which the proletariat had to fight against the oppressors both at home and abroad and that those struggles supported one another, and that all questions including the status of the Finnish nation could only be solved through the demands necessitated by class struggle. Kuusinen’s proposal got the absolute majority in the party Congress. While the Congresses of the bourgeois parties refused to accept the demand for independence the Finnish working class made it their concrete goal. While the bourgeois parties strived for collaboration with the Russian Provisional Government and the capitalists in it, the independence struggle of the Finnish working class ended up being pushed closer to the Bolsheviks who advocated National Self-Determination.” (Hyvönen, s.25)
“Apart from the social-democrats few representatives of the Young Finnish Party and the Agrarian League also voted in favor of the Power Act. Therefore the passing of the Power Act meant that the most principled supporters of independence were brought closer together. However on the 31. of July the Provisional Government dissolved the Finnish Parliament and called for new elections as punishment for the passing of the Power Act, which would have meant complete independence for Finland in internal affairs. The dissolving of the parliament served to further alienate the social-democrats and bourgeois from each other in parliamentary politics.”
“After the Finnish Parliament was dissolved by the Provisional Government with the help of the bourgeois senators new elections were arranged for October 1. and 2. The bourgeois parties absolutely refused to join with the socialists in their attempt to defend Finnish sovereignty, to continue the work of the parliament that had illegally been dissolved and instead declared that this attempt [to protect the parliament] was illegal. The bourgeois instead put all their forces into the new elections. The social-democratic party decided to participate in the elections but at the same time explained that the new elections were illegitimate and defended the legitimacy of the dissolved parliament. The election struggle became fierce. Bourgeois parties allied with each other in a coalition “against the red danger”. The bourgeois coalition achieved 108 seats against the 92 working class representatives. This was despite the fact that the amount of votes for the social-democrats increased from 370,000 to 450,000. The votes for the bourgeois also increased and since they were now all in one coalition none of their votes were wasted as had happened previously.” (Hyvönen, s.49)
The last bourgeois plot against independence
“After the elections, before the meeting of the new government, the bourgeoisie still continued to negotiate with the Russian governor general who represented the already almost dead Provisional Government. As a result of these negotiations the governor general left for Petrograd to deliver a joint manifesto of the Finnish bourgeois parties that they wanted the Provisional Government to present at the meeting of the new Finnish government. In the manifesto the Provisional Government was supposed to “give up its power over the Finnish state with the exception that foreign affairs would still be handled through Russia like they have been up to now and that Finland will not make any changes to its military policy or laws relating to the Russian state or Russian citizens inside Finland without the consent of the Russian government” . . .
This example of bourgeois politics ended up not being implemented because the life of the Russian Provisional Government came to an end before the emissary of the Finnish bourgeosie arrived in Petrograd. A Soviet Government had emerged in Russia as a result of a working class revolution. This maneuver of the Finnish bourgeoisie meant denying that basic principle of the Power Act which had declared the Finnish parliament to be the highest legal authority in Finland. The bourgeosie wanted to create an executive power outside the authority of the parliament elected by the people. At the same time, with its own manifesto, it wanted to nullify the Power Act despite the fact that when passing the Power Act the Finnish parliament had precisely decided to refuse the Russian Government any right to verify or block Finnish laws. This was a matter concerning the highest legal authority of the country. The Finnish bourgeoisie wanted to change the form of government of Finland. From a legal standpoint this maneuver was a coup. The kind of change in form of government that was described in the bourgeos manifesto could of course only have been carried out by changing the constitution through a decision of the parliament. However in its current composition the parliament would never have accepted such a decision, afterall half of the seats belonged to the socialists.” (Hyvönen, s.52-53)
The bourgeoisie could not have achieved this plan legally or democratically. Hence they attempted to scheme together with the Russian Provisional Government. To insure that Finland does not become independent but retains its status as a protectorate of capitalist Russia and that the Russian capitalist state insures the rule of the Finnish capitalists over the Finnish workers.
“The Great October Revolution in Russia ruined the plans of the bourgeoisie. The attempt to create an executive power entirely separate from the parliement failed. A soviet government had been formed in Russia whose representatives would never have supported the Finnish bourgeoisie’s dictatorship.” (Hyvönen, s.56)
Why did the Finnish capitalists finally accept independence?
So why did the Finnish capitalists accept independence after resisting it for so long? They did so because after the October Revolution Russia was no longer their ally. Instead Russia was now the ally of the Finnish working class. And therefore the Finnish capitalists requested independence from Russia which the Bolsheviks granted. The Socialists who had always advocated independence also supported Finland’s secession from Russia. The only difference being that the Socialists still wanted to maintain friendly relations to Russia while the capitalists tightened their collaboration with Russia’s enemy, Germany.
Finland is granted independence by the Bolsheviks
“The other day representatives of Finland applied to us with a demand for immediate recognition of Finland’s complete independence and endorsement of its secession from Russia. The Council of People’s Commissars resolved to give its consent and to issue a decree, which has already been published in the newspapers, proclaiming Finland’s complete independence.
Here is the text of the decision of the Council of People’s Commissars:
“In response to the application of the Finnish Government for recognition of the independence of the Finnish Republic, the Council of People’s Commissars, in full conformity with the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, resolves to recommend to the Central Executive Committee: a) to recognize the state independence of the Finnish Republic, and b) to set up, in agreement with the Finnish Government, a special commission (composed of representatives of both sides) to elaborate the practical measures necessitated by the secession of Finland from Russia.”
Naturally, the Council of People’s Commissars could not act otherwise, for if a nation, through its representatives, demands recognition of its independence, a proletarian government, acting on the principle of granting the peoples the right to self-determination, must give its consent…
The Council of People’s Commissars may be abused, may be criticized, but no one can assert that it does not carry out its promises; for there is no force on earth that can compel the Council of People’s Commissars to break its promises. This we have demonstrated by the absolute impartiality with which we accepted the demand of the Finnish bourgeoisie that Finland be granted independence, and by proceeding at once to issue a decree proclaiming the independence of Finland.
May the independence of Finland help the emancipation of the Finnish workers and peasants and create a firm basis for friendship between our peoples.”
~STALIN (The Independence of Finland: Speech to the Russian Central Executive Committee Dec. 22, 1917)
Tuure Lehen, Punaisten ja Valkoisten Sota
Esa Koskinen, Veljiksi kaikki ihmiset tulkaa: Lohja 1917-18
Antti Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-18
Viktor Holodkovski, Suomen työväen vallankumous 1918
Antti Hyvönen, Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue 1918-24
Antti Hyvönen, Suomen vanhan työväenpuolueen historia
Otto Kuusinen, “The Finnish Revolution: A Self-Criticism”
Otto Kuusinen, Suomen Työväenliikkeen Opetuksia