In the years immediately prior to the revolution, the Finnish socialists were heavily reformist. The party had always wanted to act legally and win concessions from the capitalist class. Eventually all attempts at reformism would end up in failure and in late 1917-early 1918 the party would find itself pushed to a revolutionary situation against its will by the objective conditions, the masses and the actions of the capitalist class. But before that in the period of 1916 to 1917 the social-democrats exhausted every avenue of legal reformism before ever seriously considering revolutionary action: parliamentarism, trade-unionism, demanding of concessions. Each attempt ended in failure, in the end making a violent class conflict unavoidable.
THE 1916 ELECTION VICTORY: Attempt at parliamentary reformism
The first grand moment for reformism was the historic election victory of 1916 where the socialists emerged as the largest party and held a parliamentary majority.
“…in the elections of 1916 the social-democratic party of Finland won (as the first workers’ party in the world) an absolute majority of parliamentary seats (103 seats out of 200). This was an enormous victory and persuaded the social-democrats to believe that under normal political conditions, when the parliament would function, laws favorable to the workers could be implemented peacefully.
Indeed, Finland unexpectedly gained such favorable conditions without any struggle from its part. In Petrograd [Russia], workers and soldiers overthrow czarism. In Finland, state of war ended and bourgeois democratic liberties were returned… Finns received the opportunity to create their own government, the senate. Governor-general Seyn and chairman of the senate Borovitinov were imprisoned and taken to Petrograd (where they were released). Stakhovich, a liberal more favorable to Finland, was appointed governor-general. It is doubtful that Finland could have expected conditions any more favorable under the Russian bourgeois republic.
Immediately after the overthrow of czardom, Finnish workers began creating first in the capital and then also in rural areas their own representative bodies, workers’ “representative assemblies” modeled after the Russian soviets… Representative assemblies (called soviets in some localities) functioned alongside local governing bodies (which had previously not been open to lower classes) and took part in administration. “(Holodkovski, The Finnish Workers’ Revolution 1918, pp.8-9)
“The party’s membership began to increase once again in 1916. One reason was the success that social-democrats got in the parliament elections… Among the important questions in the victorious elections of 1916, were the worsening food situation, and attitude towards the increasingly russified Finnish senate [the socialists wanted to give power from the senate to the Parliament, while the bourgeoisie supported the senate]. However the most important theme of the elections was the tenant-farmer question. Every party had their tenant-farmer program but the social-democrats put special emphasis on this question.”
(Suodenjoki & Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa: Luokka, liike ja yhteiskunta 1880-1918 (Vasemmistolainen työväenliike Pirkanmaalla osa 1), pp.181-182)
Due to obstructionism from the capitalist class and from Tsarist Russia, the social-democrats were forced into a coalition government, hindering their work:
“The social-democratic party, which had won the majority now possessed the unquestionable right to form a government. However the matter was made more difficult by the fact that the social-democratic party would have had to collaborate with bourgeois parties, which in socialist circles would have been considered betrayal of working class interests. For this reason the social-democrats announced on 23. of march their refusal to form a government, and to leave it up to bourgeois parties. Bourgeois parties were also afraid to take responsibility to form a senate. At that point the governor-general’s assistant Korff announced that unless a new senate is formed, the old Russian senate “loyal to the czar” would remain in power. This would have been intolerable. The social-democrats had to change their position on forming the senate… In their opinion, it was acceptable to form a government with representatives from the social-democratic party and the [petty-bourgeois] agrarian league, i.e. representatives from the workers’ and peasants’ parties. Again disagreements arose. The agrarian league demanded that representatives of bourgeois parties also be invited to join in the government. In this way, the social-democrats failed to avoid a coalition government.” (Holodkovski, p.9)
“Soon it became even more evident that social-democrats would not achieve much through parliamentary methods, despite their strong position in the highest government organs of Finland (half the senate seats and majority in the parliament). Bourgeois senators could rely on the chairman of the senate, the governor-general if the need arose, and his vote could at any moment grant them majority. Later [revolutionary leader and founder of the Finnish communist party] Kuusinen compared the coalition senate to a stubborn bull which was being pulled forward by its horns by the social-democrats and back by its tail by the bourgeoisie, the bull never moving at all. Additionally the Russian provisional government intervened in Finnish affairs and Finland could not resist its actions… Objective conditions did not allow social-democratic senators the opportunity to improve the position of the workers. The role of the social-democratic senators was limited to collaborating with the bourgeoisie, attempting to minimize the dissatisfaction of the population and in reality to strengthen the type of government which did not fulfill the interests of the population… The senate was stripped of its reputation before it could even do anything. But even when it did act, it didn’t win respect in the eyes of the workers but instead began receiving their scorn.”(Holodkovski, p.10)
“The social-democrats’ participation in the highest executive organ only put them in a bad light in the eyes of the workers, because the workers didn’t benefit from it.
The activity of social-democrats in the parliament proved much the same. Social-democrats only had little over half the seats. But passing changes to important laws (e.g. the constitution or reforms to taxation laws) required a two thirds majority.
The senate and parliament were the typical arena of the social-democrats’ legal activity. Legal activism is possible also in non-revolutionary situations, and therefore it was not characteristic to that time period. What was characteristic to the situation, was the ever larger non-parliamentary action by the working population. The large size of the popular movement is explained by the increased dissatisfaction of the workers, removel of the threat of repression by the authorities and the inspiring effect of the revolutionary activities of the Russian soldiers and sailors. Non-parliamentary methods corresponded to the needs of the active struggle by the people.” (Holodkovski, p.11)
The social-democrat government came to an end when the Russian Provisional Government dismantled the Finnish parliament after the social-democrats together with the agrarian league passed the Power Act, a bill for Finnish independence, making the Finnish parliament independent from Russia. The capitalists worked together with Russia to destroy the social-democrat government and to prevent this bill from being implemented. (See episode 1 of this series about the independence struggle of Finland.)
Thus due to obstructionism the social-democrats’ parliamentary hopes were frustrated. Nothing was achieved but they lost credibility in the eyes of their supporters. At the same time the capitalists were motivated to unite and campaign harder in order to combat the social-democrats in the parliament. The social-democrats no longer could inspire the same level of confidence in their voters as before. They also had a confused policy of opposing the illegal dismantling of the Finnish government by Russia, but still not boycotting the elections to create a new government. This did not help them gain support. The people thought: “what was the point of voting for them, if they would achieve nothing and the parliament would be dismantled again?”
“Social-democrats suffered a defeat in the elections of october 1-2 , which surprised them. Although, the amount of social-democrat votes increased, it was 444,608 when it had been 376,030 in previous elections. [source: J. Paasivirta, Suomen itsenäisyyskysymys 1917 [Finnish independence question 1917], II, pp. 41-44]
The increase in votes of other parties was larger, e.g. the agrarian league grew by 71,6%.
[source: H. Soikkanen, kansalaissota dokumentteina, [civil war as documents] pp. 186-188]
The development of events in the summer and fall of 1917 lead to parliamentarism being seen more and more as a dissappointment by the workers. The social-democrats joining in the government (senate), any more then their parliamentary majority, did not bring significant improvements to the workers. “The people’s paper” made the following summary about the 10 year history of the single chamber parliament:
“Now ten years later we have returned to our starting point and can see that we are just as far from our goals as we were ten years ago… The task of the single chamber, most democratic parliament in the world, has been in these ten years, to sink into sand the foaming stream of progress and change, which then was unleashed by revolution.”
[source: H. Soikkanen, p.153]
The paper explained that the workers had gone through a hard schooling. They began to understand that the strength of the working class was not in the amount of votes, but in the power and fighting capacity of their fighting class organizations. The paper emphasized that it was possible to mention achievements during this period of ten years, but all of them had been achived through non-parliamentary means. [source: H. Soikkanen, p.154]
These things were written about 2 months before the dismantling of the [Finnish] parliament [by the Russian provisional government to stifle Finnish independence]. The dismantling of the parliament destroyed the last parliamentary illusions and demonstrated the complete unreliability of bourgeois promises.” (Holodkovski, p.38)
“WE DEMAND”: Still hoping for peaceful reforms
Reformism suffered a severe blow after the social-democrats inability to pass any reforms during the time when they had parliamentary majority. The capitalist parties together with Russia destroyed the social-democrat majority and defeated them in elections. The social-democrats could no longer hope to pass laws and instead chose to rely on the support of the masses and directly demand concessions from the bourgeoisie:
“On December 1. when the new parliament was in session, the social-democratic leadership published their programmatic declaration “We demand”, which presented the basic demands of the workers. To combat the food shortages it urged to confiscate all food stores, to put production and trade of goods under strict control and distribute goods equally and with reasonable prices. The declaration demanded that the unemployed be given work at adequate wages. New municipal elections had to be carried out according to the newly passed law. [These would be the first municipal elections where workers had equal votes with capitalists. In the previous system, people with more property were entitled to more votes.] Officialdom is to be purged of reactionaries and made democratic. The white guard must be dismantled. The 8-hour working day must immediately be implemented. Tenant farmers and farm workers are to be made rightful owners of their homes and land… An insurence system for the elderly must be created and the tax system reformed. In questions dealing with the sovereign rights of Finland it was urged that the Power Act, accepted by the parliament on 18th of February be published and insisted on guaranteeing the internal autonomy of Finland until the question of Finnish independence has been solved in full. It was also demanded that a constitutional assembly be created and given unlimited authority in solving the country’s affairs and to accept a new constitution. Elections to the constitutional assembly were to be carried out equally among all citizens 20 years or older and decisions must be passed in the assembly with a simple majority. [source: И. И. Сюкияйнен Революционные события 1917-1918, [revolutionary events 1917-1918] pp. 286-289] (cf. Suodenjoki & Peltola, pp. 245-246)
These were the demands of Finnish social-democrats at that time. They didn’t attack the base of the capitalist system, but demanded a substantial limiting of the selfish interests of the ruling classes as well as the weakening of these classes in the government alongside a strengthening of the workers.
The bourgeois majority in the parliament refused these demands as entirely unacceptable. A week after the “We demand” declaration, it was already clear where revolutionary and non-revolutionary methods lead under similar conditions: Lenin’s tactics lead to the world historic victory of socialist revolution in Russia, but the tactics of Finnish social-democrats lead to the bourgeoisie ignoring all the demands of the Finnish working class and the electoral achievements of the social-democrats ended up being worth nothing.” (Holodkovski, pp. 41-42)
The “We Demand” document was naturally limited to simple reforms, but even those could not be achieved. The capitalist class was simply not willing to make compromises. Concessions could not be gained by begging but only by forcing the capitalists to give them!
THE DECEMBER 1917 GENERAL STRIKE: Workers take matters into their own hands
After attempts to pass reforms through the parliament had failed, and capitalists had refused to give them, the masses were ready to take them by force, to make life tolerable for the Finnish people. A minority of the social-democrat leaders suggested beginning a working class revolution, but majority still wanted to only pressure the capitalists to force them into concessions.
“Because the bourgeois majority in the parliament paid no heed to the workers’ demands, they began a general strike on the night of December 14. [The leading social-democratic body] The revolutionary central committee presented the strikers’ demands in a declaration titled “Working people to battle for bread and rights! Stop the presses!” (Hyvönen, p.53)
“On December 12. part of the Revolutionary Central Committee and representatives of the trade-unions held a joint meeting… Kuusinen proposed that if the parliament doesn’t satisfy the workers’ demands about the rationing of food, helping the unemployed, extending the municipal voting rights to workers etc. then the workers must take power into their own hands. Some others shared this opinion… Gylling, Pietikäinen, Visa, Väisänen and Saarikivi – opposed beginning a revolution. In their opinion the workers would not be able to keep power for long. Many thought it unlikely that the workers could handle massive nationwide problems. Majority opposed taking power. The decision to pressure the bourgeoisie and attempt to win the reforms of the “We demand”-proclamation, was passed with 18 votes against 8. To help these reforms pass even partially the social-democrats divided them into 6 separate propositions and the demands which offended the bourgeoisie the most – the demand for calling a constitutional assembly and dismantling the white guard – were dropped entirely.” (Holodkovski, pp.50-51) (Cf. E. Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenäisyyssenaatti, p. 17)
This demonstrates that the leadership in late 1917 was divided into revolutionaries and reformists. The reformists constituted a solid majority of 18 against 8. The social-democrat party did everything it could, to appease the workers and begged the capitalists to grant reforms which were denied, nearly every single time. And when ever a reform was granted, it was not due to the action of the social-democrats but because the workers took matters into their own hands.
“The 4th Congress of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation met on December 12. . It pointed out that the conditions of the workers were so hopeless and unbearable, that unless the congress is ready to make radical decisions, the workers will take matters into their own hands. The food question was top most in importance… Many… deputees saw revolution as the only thing that could save the workers from starvation. Deputee Hakkinen said that unless the working class rises up to fight they will all starve to death… Deputee Pyttynen said that in Ostrobothnia the workers were eagerly waiting for the decisions of the congress and were willing to die in order to put them into effect… The deputee from Tampere said that workers of the city have decided to either win or die. Deputee Lampinen said that in many localities the workers have already began to take action, because it is better to die in battle then to do nothing and die of hunger. Some delegates said that they had been told by the workers, that unless the congress accepted radical decisions the delegates would not be welcomed back. The workers were not worried about the shortage of weapons. The delegate from Tornio said the Russian soldiers had promised they would have weapons. The delegate from Oulu also said the soldiers sided with the revolution.
[source: H. Soikkainen, pp.353-356]
The attitude of the workers was generally so firm, that there could never be a better time for revolution. However the attitude of the popular masses inspired uneasiness among some working class leaders. These leaders did not aim to overthrow the capitalists but to only pressure them and force them to accept the most important demands, in order to dissolve the revolutionary energy that had built up.
The congress of trade-union organizations published a declaration on December 13. which stated that nothing had been done in order to satisfy the demands which the trade-union delegation had made to the senate on October 20. The trade-union congress demanded that the parliament order the senate already that same day, to implement the Power Act [of Finnish sovereignty], the 8-hour working day and give parliament the right to control all of government. If this was not done, the workers would begin a general strike, the responsibility of which would fall to the bourgeoisie.”
“The general strike put forward the same demands that had been presented in the “We demand”-programme, demanded solving of the food crisis and unemployment, implementation of the power act [which guaranteed Finnish independence from capitalist Russia], fair municipal elections as well as the 8-hour working day, freeing the tenant farmers from the landlords, extending electoral rights to all citizens age 20 or older, taxing the rich and calling a constitutional assembly. The social-democratic deputies presented these demands in the parliament on behalf of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation on December 13th. The demands were read aloud by deputy Vuoristo who further appealed to the [capitalist] deputies with these words: “After the great masses have seen these demands, —it is no longer in our power to control or lead the situation—history and the minutes of the meeting will demonstrate that from our side we have attempted a peaceful solution. You have every single time refused—I wonder if you still refuse—these modest demands, which you yourselves have claimed to support, and yet have not implemented. Will you plunge our nation into catastrophe because you refuse such modest demands?” (Hyvönen, pp.60-61)
“Social-democrat Vuoristo read the declaration in parliament and emphasized it was supported by 170,000 trade-union workers, as well as all the politically organized workers, i.e. 250,000 citizens.” [source: minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.98-99] (Holodkovski, p.52, )
“The general strike of 1905 had involved also the bourgeois officials and no bourgeois party had dared to oppose it. The 1917 general strike on the other hand was of a different character. It began from the atmosphere created by the October Revolution, as a revolutionary struggle of the working class and poor rural population against the bourgeoisie. In 1905 the workers had already fought against their own national bourgeoisie when it had allied with the Russian Czar to minimize the democratic parliamentary reform. But in the general strike of 1917 the workers targeted primarily the bourgeoisie of their own country and fundamentally it was nothing else then a struggle for power. The strike spread accross the country and gained right away the character of a sharp class conflict. At this stage the bourgeoisie didn’t yet feel themselves strong enough to enter into open conflict with the workers. The bourgeoisie did have a fairly extensive network of white guard organizations and it had received more then 7000 rifles from Germany along with other weapons. But the initiative was with the workers, and the strike could paralyze the entire country’s transportation, even administration. In the largest working class population centers power was in the hands of worker militias, workers’ “delegate assemblies” [soviets] or councils of working class organizations. Tens of thousands of workers and peasants joined the militias which began to declare themselves red guards. In many localities workers occupied police stations and regional government buildings, and confiscated food and weapons hidden away by the bourgeoisie. The development of the strike in this way lead to a sharpening of class antagonisms.” (Hyvönen, pp.61-62)
Revolutionary leader Yrjö Sirola described the situation in this way:
“The strike spread quickly all over the country and acquired a revolutionary character. The working class was no longer satisfied in asking for the reforms presented in the “We demand”-programme and the disarming of white guard organizations, but began demanding conquest of power. In reality, in large parts of the country (especially in cities and rural working class centers) power was already uncontestedly in the hands of revolutionary working class organizations.” (Sirola, Suomen luokkasota)
The workers take control of cities all over the country.
“…the Revolutionary central committee received messages through the telegraph and telephone from all parts of the country, demonstrating that the tide of revolution was rising ever higher and that everywhere, the workers were masters of the situation and full of fighting spirit. In Kajaani the strike committee informed that the town administration was under its control and everything was peaceful. The revolutionary committee of Tornion informed that power was in the hands of the workers and steps are being taken to solve the food crisis. In Mikkeli workers occupied the police building as well as telegraph and telephone station and forced the governor to obey the people’s demands. The mood of the workers was fierce. The workers’ revolutionary committee in Vaasa informed that the workers have occupied the regional government, sealed the rooms and posted guards, and that everything was peaceful. The workers’ soviet of Oulu telegraphed that the workers have occupied the police station, railway station, telegraph and telephone stations and regional government. Factories, shops and schools have been closed, without conflicts. Messages came from Heinola informing about the eager fighting will of the workers. Information coming from Joensuu and Jyväskylä stated that power was in the hands of the workers. Telegraphs came from Turku, Pori, Riihimäki and Ruotsinpyhtää stating that worker militias are keeping revolutionary order, confiscating weapons from the bourgeoisie and arresting the most active counter-revolutionaries. Worker organizations of Lappeenranta were carrying out inspections to discover the bourgeoisies’ hidden food stores and had already confiscated 16 tons of grain. The working people of Oulunkylä confiscated food and alcoholic beweriges from the bourgeoisie (under the law, the production and sale of alcohol was prohibited, so the bourgeoisie was breaking the law).
Here and there, worker militias had to face the white guards but gained the upper hand. The white guard of Tammisaari managed to drive the workers away from the telephone station for a while but soon the red guards took it over again. In Jyväskylä, Sortavala and Oitti the bourgeois broke the phone lines but almost everywhere the workers managed to repair them.” (Holodkovski, pp. 64-65)
“The strike spread to encompass the whole country. The industries of every city and every countryside municipality stopped work. A total of 832 enterprises participated in the strike, partial strikes were held in 112 enterprises. 10 enterprises stayed out of the strike. None of the newspapers could appear, except “The information bulletin of the workers’ revolutionary central committee” and local revolutionary committee and strike committee bulletins.
The workers saw the general strike as the beginning of a proletarian revolution and not simply a stoppage of work. All over the country they created red guard chapters. Russian troops partially helped to solve the weapon question of the red guards and worker militias. In Helsinki the workers acquired 3000 rifles from the arsenal of Vyborg shipyard (which were returned after the strike) [source: A. Taimi, Sivuja Eletystä, pp. 228-229, 231]. In Tampere the workers had 300 rifles, in Kotka 600, in Vyborg 300 etc. [source: Lehen, p.86] Workers occupied all the most important locations in the cities, took control of the media and transportation, conducted house searches in the houses of the bourgeoisie, confiscated any weapons they found and arrested the most hated counter-revolutionaries. The white guards did not dare to resist the worker’s highly unified and organized actions, apart from a few exceptions. The bourgeois authority was crippled. The bourgeois police academy… was shut down. From all municipalities, messages came announcing that power was in the hands of the workers. The working class had the opportunity to fully conquer state power, and besides, possibly without any serious resistance or bloodshed, as the events had caught the bourgeoisie off guard and it was unprepared for civil war. A revolutionary situation had arisen in the country.” (Holodkovski, pp.54-55)
The December 1917 general-strike would have been the perfect opportunity for a revolution. The capitalists were caught off-guard, they were not armed or prepared sufficiently to oppose the workers, who easily took control with very little resistance. But a revolution was not what the majority of social-democrat leaders were hoping for. They were frightened by the turn of events. The masses had simply organized without the reformist leaders and taken more bold action then their supposed leaders had wanted. The social-democratic party was now forced to consider whether to support an outright workers’ revolution or to oppose it.
FACTIONS INSIDE THE PARTY: Reformists, Centrists, Revolutionaries and Counter-revolutionaries.
White propaganda written in the 30s also admits that instead of advocating for revolution “The social-democrats didn’t have the courage to order a rebellion, but instead warned against individual actions and told the workers to keep united.”
(Erkki Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenäisyyssenaatti, p. 15)
“At the same time as the working class was ready for revolution and rising for battle, [source: “Финляндия революция”, стр. 26.] the majority in the Revolutionary Central Committee considered revolution to be dangerous in that situation. Why did an attitude of compromise triumph in the working class leaders, while a few months later [in january 1918] a revolutionary attitude gained the upper hand despite the situation no longer being favorable? [source: Lehen, p.107]
In December 1917 the social-democratic party functioned under the prevailing understanding of class struggle. The theoretical level of the party was low, it interpreted principles of revolution and class struggle in a backward way.* According to [revolutionary leader] Yrjö Sirola, a left-wing faction, centrist faction and a right-wing faction all lived harmoniously in the party and the centrists were the leading group, with their left-kautskyite theories.** Sirola considered himself to have belonged to this group…” (Holodkovski, p. 55)
*[source: “40 лет рабочей революции в Финляндии.” “Новая и новейшая история”, 1958, No 2, стр. 125. (“40 years of the workers’ revolution in Finland.” “New and Newest History”, 1958, No 2, p. 125.)]
**[source: Предисловие Ю. Сирола к тезисам ЦК КПФ. “Пролетарская революция”, 1928, No 8 (78), стр. 168. (Y.Sirola’s preface to the theses of the Central Committee of the Finnish Communist Party. “The Proletarian Revolution”, 1928, No 8 (78), p. 168.)]
“Sirola explained that this left-wing consisted of instinctively revolutionary workers without conscious Bolshevik leadership. The left-wing faction became stronger and more active after the October Revolution. [source: “40 лет рабочей революции в Финляндии.” “Новая и новейшая история”, 1958, No 2, стр. 125. (“40 years of the workers’ revolution in Finland.” “New and Newest History”, 1958, No 2, p. 125.)]
The working class leaders of that time had no familiarity with Lenin’s theoretical works, partially due to the fact that they didn’t speak Russian, but more because they were not very interested in the Bolshevik’s struggle against opportunism or issues of the international working class movement. Here is an illustrative example. In June of 1917 at the 9th congress of the Finnish social-democratic party Bolshevik representatives Alexandra Kollontai and Jukka Rahja [a Finnish bolshevik] encouraged Finnish social-democrats to join the Zimmerwald current [which opposed the imperialist world war one]. Valpas replied that the party majority was not on the Zimmerwald side.
“The extreme right-wing of the majority is more right-wing then the famous Branting, it is almost petit-bourgeois and in the party executive committee that has been the leading tendency” and in questions of class struggle it is of the same opinion as Branting and Scheidemann [social-chauvinists and reformists] [source: Soikkanen, I, p. 94].
Kuusinen who spoke later, said: “It is true that Zimmerwalds, Scheidemanns, Thomases etc. are very vague concepts to us. If Rahja is going to question us about international politics, starting with the question of which groups are now Zimmerwaldian, then we are going to make a great many mistakes.” Rahja interjected: “You have been together with the bourgeoisie and for that reason can’t even recognize social-democrats.”
Kuusinen replied: “Yes, it is partially because of that, but also because we are so far away from those international politics… but I think its not so dangerous if we here make a decision somewhat with our ‘eyes closed’ to follow the decision of our Russian comrades and join with the Zimmerwald… We trust you. Valpas says that it would be incorrect since we are more bourgeois then the Zimmerwaldians. That is true. From what I personally know about the Zimmerwaldians I do think that they take a more extreme stance then us here in Finland.”[source: Soikkanen, I, pp. 96-97] (Holodkovski, pp.56-57)
“Before the October revolution in Russia and in the early weeks of the revolution, the stance of Finnish social-democrats was that a socialist revolution could only succeed in large western industrial countries. Three days after the Bolshevik revolution, Kuusinen said in a speech to the parliament that the question of proletarian revolution would not be solved in Finland but
“it would be settled in Europe. It also won’t be settled in Russia but in Russia, Germany, England, all of them together and possibly nearly at the same time. Unless a proletarian revolution comes from there, it won’t happen in Finland either…”
(Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.56-57)
From the above statement it follows logically that the Finnish socialists didn’t feel the need to urgently prepare for a socialist revolution, until it happened in the Western countries. Because otherwise the Finnish revolution would suffer defeat, and therefore the working classes had to be prevented from taking this premature and ill-advised step. There was the danger that the revolutionary working class would turn its back on the leaders [as it later did] and would start to follow the firm supporters of revolution without delay. For this reason the more radical of the leaders had to keep up appearances and act thus, to not cause disappointment amont revolutionary workers and to not let them out of their influence, even if they didn’t truly support revolution. They had to pretend to be much more left-wing then they really were, and emphasize that they supported uncompromising class struggle and won’t collaborate with the bourgeosie. That way they kept their authority among the left-wing working class. The siltasaari [center-left] faction founded its policy on this basis. In the party congress in 1917 Kuusinen described the policy of the times in the following way:
“Personally, I would now take quite a revisionist stance. In normal circumstances I would try to support class struggle. But it probably won’t hurt to take a [public] stand that is more radical then the actual practice. That is how this party has always been. We have always given an image of ourselves to the outside, which is slightly more radical then we really are. We have had class struggle as such a dogma right from the beginning, that if someone were to speak against it, they would have been condemned by the party.”
(Minutes of the 9. congress of the Finnish social-democratic party)
To have understood the falsity of the deeply rooted dogmas of Western social-democracy would have required serious reconsideration and becoming accustomed with Lenin’s works. Those who trusted in [German revisionist leader] Kautsky’s authority had only realized the falseness of some of Kautsky’s claims after looking into that theoretical work that some Bolsheviks had given to developing the theory and practice of Marxism. Lenin’s recommendations for Finnish social-democrats to take power, and his short letter of December 11. could not contain full argumentation and therefore didn’t have a significant enough impact on the Finns.” (Holodkovski, p. 57-58)
The factions in the social-democratic party altered over time. Initially there was a struggle between the counter-revolutionary revisionist right-wing faction and the left-wing “siltasaari” faction. However in 1917 a further split emerged:
1) the firm revolutionaries, armed masses, elements of trade-unions etc. formed a revolutionary left-wing tendency but as Sirola said, without Bolshevik leadership.
2) the “siltasaari” group which consisted of many social-democrat party leaders became a center-faction. They represented a left-menshevik, left-kautskyite tendency which supported revolution in theory but not in reality, believed Finland as a small peasant country wasn’t ready for revolution.
3) the counter-revolutionaries, open revisionists and reformists formed the right-wing. The leaders of this group such as Väinö Tanner would consistently oppose working class revolution throughout the civil war, would eventually denounce socialism and form the basis of modern Finnish social-democracy.
The social-democrat leaders saw the december general-strike would lead to a working class revolution which they saw as premature and inadvisable. Therefore they began aiming to end the strike and still wanted pushthe capitalists to grant concessions and appease the workers to prevent a revolution.
“The Revolutionary Central Committee [i.e social-democrat leadership] was being pressured from the right and the left. The majority of the social-democratic parliamentary group was nervous about the revolutionary character of the December general strike, and after receiving information that the strike had in some locations lead to bloodshed, it called its members away from Revolutionary Central Committee leaving only three members who it authorized to act in favor of ending the strike.
[source: “Explanation of the minutes of the 10. (extraordinary) congress of the Finnish social-democratic party held in Helsinki 25-27. December 1917”, by Anton Huotari as secretary, p.10]
The view of the workers’ militias was the opposite. On the evening of 15. December their representatives arrived at the meeting demanding firmer actions: disarming the white guards and taking power. If the meeting refused to do this, the workers would do it themselves. The Revolutionary Central Committee promised to give its answer by 8 o’clock the next morning. The meeting did not have time to discuss the matter because many of its members had to be in session of the parliament.
In the parliament the social-democrats tried for the last time to persuade the bourgeosie to realize that it was essential to grant at least some of the workers’ demands… In his speech to the parliament Kuusinen said:
“I am of the view that there could be unrest tomorrow, unless we who seek to calm down the workers, can finally demonstrate some real results from this parliament… We at least see it as beneficial if we could peacefully get over this critical period.”
(Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.56-57)
“Valpas said in his speech that “The revolutionary movement has until now only taken the form of a strike movement” [source: Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.56-57] and let it be understood that the situation could change as early as tomorrow, unless the parliament give the workers real results. The leadership of the strike did not consider itself capable of controlling the forces who demanded firm action…
After finally realizing the seriousness of the situation the bourgeosie agreed to some concessions. Alkio [from the petit-bourgeois Agrarian league] made the proposition that
“…the parliament would at least temporarily begin wielding that authority which had previously belonged to the Czar and grand duke.” [i.e. the Power Act would partially be implemented at least temporarily, making Finland a sovereign republic]
(Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I p. 220)
The social-democrats proposed that the parliament be made permanently and not temporarily the highest authority. The secretariat of the parliament proposed in the name of the bourgeos parliamentary group that the highest authority be given to the senate. Alkio’s proposal was accepted with 127 votes in favor, 68 against. Afterwards the parliament accepted the 8-hour working day and the municipal election reform.” (Holodkovski, p. 58-59)
The white guard propaganda book Svinhufvud and the independence senate also admits these facts. The author quotes from the same speech by Kuusinen on page 23.
“After the parliament session on night of December 16. the Revolutionary Central Committee continued its meeting, where the proposition of the workers’ militias “to take power” was discussed. The previous night the council of worker organizations had also joined in with this proposition. Finally at 5 o’clock in the morning it was decided with 14 votes against 11 to take power in the hands of the workers… Sirola was tasked with drafting the call to revolution. But soon some who had sided with revolution changed their minds and the whole vote was dropped.” (Holodkovski, p. 60)
White guard propaganda also confirms this saying:
“After a heated discussion the meeting decided with 14 votes against 11 to begin a revolution the next day… The fateful hour for our fatherland had not struck yet however. Before dawn some members of the central committee who had supported revolution changed their mind and the decision was dropped.” (Räikkönen, p. 24)
“On the morning of 16. December there appeared a declaration of the Revolutionary Central Committee which had been written before the call to revolution had been cancelled. It descibed the 8-hour working day and municipal reform by the parliament as entirely insufficient.” (Holodkovski, p. 60)
The declaration read:
“That is all! And even that, after many twists and turns. But it cannot satisfy the workers. It cannot. It will not be allowed. Not even a word has been spoken about solving the food crisis, not to even mention actions being taken. No action has been taken to combat unemployment. The lords of the parliament naturally don’t want to free the tenant-farmers. They oppose democratization of the state machine. They firmly close their pocket books from effective taxation. They do not wish to remove obstacles from voting rights, they abhore calling a constitutional assembly. They don’t plan to give up their butcher [white] guards. But they must be forced. Power has so far been wielded only by the bourgeoisie. It must now be taken into the hands of the workers. The strike must be continued, the bourgeois state machine must be taken under working class supervision, railroads etc. transportation and communication must be taken under the control of the workers, the bourgeoisie must be disarmed, its sabotage activity and armed resistance must be crushed, the worker guards must enforce revolutionary order, in the regions power belongs to local soviets and committees. The highest ruling body is the workers’ Revolutionary Central Committee. May everyone know their task. May everyone fulfill their duty. This way the revolutionary workers fight for their rights, to win bread.” (H. Soikkanen, kansalaissota dokumentteina p. 245)
“The declaration which emphasized that the demands which lead to the general strike were not even close to being satisfied, and therefore it was necessary to take even firmer actions, proved to be in stark contrast with the Revolutionary Central Committee’s actual policy. The majority of the central committee actually took the opinion that it was best to be satisfied with the concessions they had won, and to end the strike…
Later Sirola said about those days that setting up a proletarian dictatorship corresponded to such a degree with the hopes and wishes of the workers that if one of the leaders had had the courage to step up as the head of a workers’ government, the workers would have supported them, followed them and the revolution would have been carried out.” (Holodkovski, p. 61)
“RED SENATE”: The Final Reformist Utopia
The social-democrats had been lead to believe that a compromise with the capitalists could be reached. If the general-strike was ended and society returned to normal conditions, the capitalists would allow the social-democrats control of the senate. The social-democrats were not stupid enough to fully trust this proposition but still agreed to go along, as the other alternative would have been revolution.
“The leaders of the strike began negotiations with a few bourgeois representatives of the parliament about the creation of a socialist government “the legal way”, i.e. by a parliamentary decision. The bourgeois representatives implied that such a government could be formed if the strike was ended. The parliament couldn’t be pressured any further because its chairman had dissolved it for the duration of the strike. The social-democrats had opposed dissolving the parliament without success. Therefore, in order to create a social-democratic government through the parliament, the strike had to be ended. But were there any guarantees that the bourgeoisie would not betray its promise? It would have been childish to believe the promises of the bourgeoisie. The leaders of the strike understood this but still supported ending the strike. In their opinion the continuation of the strike and its escalation to a revolution could have disastrous consequences which had to be prevented. The policy of forming a socialist government through a parliamentary road was accepted, and it instantly reduced the revolutionary sentiment. Was there any need to use violence, if a red government could be created with the agreement of parliament? In light of these facts it is easy to understand the actions of the majority of Finnish working class leaders in December 1917.”
“The Revolutionary Central Committee discussed the question of a red government and the strike on December 17. The minutes of the meeting speak of disunity… votes were divided evenly. Six members… supported social-democrat participation in government (…minutes don’t specify what this meant)… six members supported ending the strike without any further demands. No decision was reached.
A decision was accepted in the next meeting of the Revolutionary Central Committee which began at 2am December 18. and had a crucial significance. The participants of the meeting were told that the council of workers’ organizations of Helsinki unanimously support forming a workers’ government. The railway workers agree. On the other hand the majority of the social-democratic parliamentary group supports forming a red government through legal, i.e. parliamentary means… three proposals were presented: 1. forming a red government through parliamentary means, 2. forming a red government through non-parliamentary means and 3. to end the general strike without any further demands. Forming a red government through parliamentary means received 8 votes in favor… 8 members also opposed it. The vote of the chairman decided the question in favor of accepting the proposal. In the final vote the decision was accepted with 7 votes in favor, 5 against and 2 abstaining that the strike will be ended and the social-democratic parliamentary group is tasked with forming a red government through the parliament…” (Holodkovski, pp.62-63)
White guard propaganda also admits this saying:
“In the final vote it was decided at last with 7 votes in favor and 5 against – with 2 abstaining from voting –, that the strike will be ended and “the parliamentary group will be given the task to form a red government through the parliament”. By promising the frenzied masses a “red senate” it was possible to calm things down.” (Räikkönen, p. 27)
Meanwhile the proletarian and rural masses waited for developments.
“The local committees and soviets awaited at their telephones around the clock for revolutionary orders from the central leadership. They anxiously waited for instructions.
In such a situation, news began to spread that the Revolutionary Central Committee had decided to end the strike. To the workers this seemed at first to be unbelievable and monstrous. They didn’t believe it. In some places the telegraph which called for ending the strike, was seen as a provocation. [source: L. Letonmäki, Den finska socialdemokratin och revolutionen, p.7]
In Tampere the workers thought the members of their committee who announced the ending of the strike, were traitors who had been bribed by the bourgeoisie. When the members of the committee tried to defend themselves in a mass meeting, they were prevented from speaking with shouts of “down!”, “out!”, “traitors!”” (Holodkovski, p.65)
“Even after the news turned out to be true, hundreds of workers refused at first to obey the order to end the strike. From all corners of the country came confused and angry questions about why the strike should end… In Kotka, Lahti and Loviisa the workers rose up almost unanimously to oppose ending the strike. Those supporting the order of the Revolutionary Central Committee were pulled down from podiums. The workers of Kotka and Kymenlaakso voiced the slogan “Power to the workers”, “We must declare a proletarian dictatorship” and promised to mobilize and thousand men.[source: Punakaarti rintamalla. Luokkasodan muistoja, p.106]
The workers of Karjaa declared in their meeting that they don’t accept ending the strike because the results achived are insufficient, and said the measures outlined in the “We demand” proclamation absolutely had to be fulfilled. The workers of Karkkila unanimously accepted the following statement: “We don’t accept the decision of the Revolutionary Central Commitee. We must uncompromisingly hold on to the demands we put forward at the beginning of the strike; for that reason such a government must be created that will implement the Power Act, bring the tenant-farmer question to an acceptable conclusion etc. Also the regional and municipal governments must be taken in the workers’ hands. Forces must remain mobilized until working conditions and the food situation have been organized according to the new regime.”
[source: “Suurlakkotiedonantoja” [“general strike information bulletins”] n:o 1, 19.XI.1917.]
Similar decision was made by the workers of Lohja. News arrived in Helsinki that the decision to end the strike had caused unrest among the workers and meetings were held in several places. Those who supported ending the strike were accused of being traitors.” [source: И. И. Сюкияйнен, p. 129] (Holodkovski, p.66)
The masses had been ready for revolution. All they lacked as Sirola and Kuusinen later said, was Bolshevik leadership, which did not exist in Finland at the time.
The Revolutionary Central Committee published a declaration on 18. December titled “Class struggle without the general strike” which stated that:
“The bourgeosie’s black powergrab [attempt to build military dictatorship] has been defeated… power will be given to the hands of the parliament, and laws about municical democracy and 8-hour working day have been passed… Part of the parliament bourgeoisie have made emergency promises. They’ve promised improvements to the food policy. They have also promised to recognize and implement the ‘power act’ as a basis for democracy… They have also promised their support for freeing the tenant-farmers and other important demands… Their promises are not worth much however, unless the workers standby as a firm observing guardian, ready to attack if betrayal of the promises is discovered…” (H. Soikkanen, pp. 248-250)
The capitalists’ attempt to build a dictatorship will be discussed in a later episode.
“The [social-democrat] declaration [to end the strike] clearly demonstrates that they set as goals of the working class movement only those types of reforms and demands which did not directly attack the foundations of the capitalist system.” (Holodkovski, p. 67)
“The workers’ executive committee of Helsinki declared on 19. of December that: “Because a red senate has been formed and the general organized workers’ meetings… have today decided to end the strike, the workers’ executive committee of Helsinki informs that the strike is considered to be over by 2 p.m.” …words about the formation of a red senate do not reflect any reality: the senate was only being planned. However, for a few days this illusion was seen as a realistic possibility. The newspaper “The Worker” published advice from the workers to the red senate. The planned members of the red senate… held a meeting to plan the government’s program… The senate question ended exactly as Sirola had thought. It was childish to imagine in that situation that the bourgeois majority would have handed over the reigns of power to the social-democrats… the proposal for a red senate received only 80 votes. A 100 votes supported the bourgeois senate, Svinhufvud as its leader.” (Holodkovski, pp. 70-71)
A white guard author writes:
“On December 19. the workers’ executive committee finally declared the strike to be over, because a red senate had been formed. However this did not happen…” (Räikkönen, p. 27)
In this way all the attempts at peaceful reform failed. The capitalists did not grant any meaningful concessions or share power with the workers. The conditions still remained absolutely miserable in the country: long working days despite some industries officially accepting 8-hour working days on paper, and this obviously did not extend to farm workers, rural house servants or tenant-farmers, there was still no land reform, no ruling single chamber parliament, wages were too low to compete with inflation and black market prices of necessities and according to government estimates one quarter of the population was threatened by famine. See episode 2 of this series about the conditions of the people before the revolution.
The absolute failure of reformism to change the miserable conditions kept pushing the masses towards real revolutionary struggle. At the same time, now frightened by the unrest of the december general-strike and the strength of the masses, the capitalists began to rapidly arm themselves, to build a dictatorship and to prepare to crush the workers if they attempted to rise up and improve their lives.
Holodkovski, Suomen Työväenvallankumous 1918
Suodenjoki & Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa: Luokka, liike ja yhteiskunta 1880-1918 (Vasemmistolainen työväenliike Pirkanmaalla osa 1)
J. Paasivirta, Suomen itsenäisyyskysymys 1917
H. Soikkanen, kansalaissota dokumentteina
И. И. Сюкияйнен Революционные события 1917-1918
Me vaadimme https://mltheory.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/me-vaadimme-julistus.pdf
E. Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenäisyyssenaatti
Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-1918
Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917
Sirola, Suomen luokkasota
A. Taimi, Sivuja Eletystä
Tuure Lehen, Punaisten ja Valkoisten Sota
“40 лет рабочей революции в Финляндии.” “Новая и новейшая история”, 1958, No 2, стр. 125.
Предисловие Ю. Сирола к тезисам ЦК КПФ. “Пролетарская революция”, 1928, No 8 (78), стр. 168.
Minutes of the 9. congress of the Finnish social-democratic party
Explanation of the minutes of the 10. (extraordinary) congress of the Finnish social-democratic party held in Helsinki 25-27. December 1917
L. Letonmäki, Den finska socialdemokratin och revolutionen
Punakaarti rintamalla: Luokkasodan muistoja, ed. J. Lehtosaari