The Finnish Communist Revolution (1918) PART 7: The Civil War

“To the front”

When the Finnish revolution and civil war began on midnight between 26-27 of January 1918, the country had already been in a revolutionary situation for months. The February revolution of 1917 had dismantled the Tsarist police and created a serious power vacuum in the country. A people’s militia had been created to carry out police duties, but the militia was not a typical police force at all and consisted largely of ordinary workers.

The conditions of the working class, poor tenant-farmers and household servants were very bad. They worked anywhere from 10 hours per day, 16 hours per day, or in the case of household servants basically an unlimited amount of hours. Unemployment was also high and famine was a serious danger. One quarter of the population were at an imminent risk of starvation.

The socialists won elections in 1916 but in 1917 the government was disbanded by the Russian Empire. There was also no municipal democracy: in municipal elections people with more property had more votes. The ordinary people lived in terrible conditions and didn’t have many peaceful ways of trying to improve their situation.

When the Tsarist police and other repressive institutions collapsed, the Finnish workers began strongly demanding an 8 hour working day, reasonable wages, food at decent prices and equal suffrage. Household servants began demanding the right to organize, and tenant-farmers began demanding land reform. There were massive demonstrations, protests and strikes.

The rich capitalists, aristocrats and politicians tried to use the police to suppress the people, but the new police – the people’s militia – didn’t always obey the rich. It often sided with the people.

Finland didn’t have its own military so in order to repress the people, the capitalists needed to create a military. That is why the White Guard was created. The White Guard carried out violent and brutal attacks against protestors and striking workers and peasants. To protect themselves, the workers and peasants created their own Red Guards, which were unarmed at first.

In December 1917 the Socialists began a General Strike demanding an 8 hour working day, democracy, end to the repression, food for the starving and other similar demands. This strike caused the Finnish state to completely collapse. Red Guards, who had only a small number of rifles, spontaneously occupied most government buildings and important locations. Power was in the hands of the people.

However, the capitalists and right-wing politicians managed to trick the people. They promised that the socialists could form a government if they just ended the General Strike. The socialists accepted and ended the strike, but it was all a lie. The capitalists and right-wing politicians now refused to allow the socialists to form a government, and they refused to grant any of the people’s demands, although some workplaces were forced to accept an 8 hour work day.

Already for months, the Finnish capitalists, right-wing politicians and aristocrats had been building a secret White Army in the region of Ostrobothnia. They had stockpiled massive amounts of weapons and ammunition which they had received from Germany and Sweden. They had hidden large amounts of food, and created a secret network of White Guard agents, disguised as volunteer fire-departments, forest offices and under other kinds of cover. They had received hundreds of non-commissioned officers from Germany, who were now training White troops in Ostrobothnia.

It was absolutely necessary for the capitalists to have total control inside Finland. The militia was unreliable, and they couldn’t tolerate the existence of the Red Guards. They also couldn’t keep the people from protesting or going on strike. Of course, they categorically refused to grant the people’s justified demands – instead they were going to rely on violent repression.

The situation had become more and more revolutionary, but the December General Strike was a turning point. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia in October, which demonstrated that a workers’ revolution was possible. The December General Strike showed to the Finnish capitalists, exactly how precarious their situation was if the workers decided to rise up and take power. Therefore, the capitalists massively speeded-up their military preparations. They needed to create a strong army, attack the workers, destroy the Red Guard, and install a military dictatorship or a monarchist dictatorship.


THE WHITE ASSAULT: The declaration of war


The war began with an assault by the White Army, North from most of the big population centers. The Whites had previously withdrawn the senate and most capitalist politicians to their new secret capital in Vaasa. This became the seat of the White government.

The Whites began their assault under the pretext of trying to liberate Finland from Russia. This might seem very strange. After all, Finland had already been given independence by the Soviet Russian government, and the Russian police, the Russian governor general and other Russian authority inside Finland had been totally dismantled. So how could they claim they were defending themselves from the Russians?

The fact is, there were still some Russian troops inside Finland. This is because Finland did not have its own military, and the Russian Empire had been worried that Germany might invade Finland. WWI was still going at this point.

The remaining Russian troops inside Finland were not stable fighting units. During the last days of the Russian Tsarist Empire and the Russian Provisional Government, the army had completely collapsed. Soldiers had started to leave their barrackses and go home. The soldiers had supported the February revolution and killed their monarchist officers. In Finland, the capitalists had tried to use Russian troops against demonstrators but the troops didn’t obey. Sometimes the soldiers defended the workers and peasants who were demonstrating. These troops were not in Finland to occupy or oppress the people, in fact, they refused to do so.

British historian Upton says the Russian soldiers: “had neither the will nor the ability to retain control in Finland.” (Upton, The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918, p. 272)

“It was quite clear that the presence of the Russians was to be temporary, and that the defense of Petrograd was the sole reason for their remaining.” (Upton, p. 249)

The Whites accused the socialists of wanting the Russians to stay, so they could use them for their own purposes but historian Upton completely debunks this:

“Not the slightest hint had been given that the party wanted the Russians to stay…” (Upton, The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918, p. 249)

The Finnish capitalists themselves had often tried to use Russian soldiers against Finnish workers, but socialists never had any intention of doing so. The social-democrats were anyway not in favor of violence, and didn’t speak Russian.

Furthermore, the military had absolutely collapsed, most units were barely held together and the Russian army couldn’t have oppressed Finland even if they had wanted to. On top of that, the Soviet Russian leader V. I. Lenin, had promised that the troops would be gradually withdrawn from Finland. The only thing holding this back was the war. Soviet Russia was intending to stop its participation in WWI and immediately when a peace treaty could be signed between Soviet Russia and Germany, the troops would begin to be withdrawn.

In reality, already for months troops had been returning home even without orders. Lenin also ordered the military to not interfere in Finnish affairs, not that the soldiers would’ve wanted to anyway. Consistently when the Finnish capitalists had asked Russian soldiers to attack demonstrators and thus interfere, the soldiers had refused.

In short, there were Russian troops in Finland, but they were confined to their barrackses and were not in fighting condition. This is why, when the Whites attacked the soldiers, they defeated them easily. The soldiers were not interested in fighting or prepared for it.

“Their Russian opponents were mostly demoralized, isolated… without any obvious cause to fight for, and mostly taken by surprise” (Upton, p. 272)

The Soviet-German peace treaty was signed on March 3, 1918, about a month after the Finnish civil war started. The Whites were in a hurry. If they wanted to pretend that the civil war was a “national war” against Russia, and not a class war against the Red Guards, then they had to attack right away before the Russian troops were pulled out.

“Mannerheim ordered the war to begin with the disarming of Russian soldiers in Southern Ostrobothnia … small number of Russian barracks thinly spread out, were not in any condition for battle, so a surprise attack guaranteed an easy victory and a large amount of weapons and supplies. The intention was that the early success would inspire the whites, boost moral, instill a sense confidence…

The Russian soldiers posed no threat, had been ordered to not get involved in Finnish affairs, and were waiting to be pulled from the country after a peace had been made between Germany and Russia. So why did Mannerheim choose to attack them? To get weapons, boost morale etc. but there was a more important reason:

“The goal of targeting the Russian soldiers was to make the war a seem like a national war against Russians. Mannerheim’s secret order of 25. of January… said to attack the Russian soldiers on 28 [of January]… [source: Erinnerungen, p. 171] Around the same time, though not right away, the working class movement concluded that revolution was unavoidable…” (Holodkovski, Suomen työväen vallankumous 1918, p. 148)

In white guard propaganda the war was presented as a “national war” against Russian tyranny. But this was a lie. Soviet Russia had given Finland independence and had agreed with the Finnish government that the remaining Russian troops would be pulled after Russia signs a peace treaty with Germany. The white guards screamed that Russia had no reason to fear a German intervention, although Russia was still at war with Germany. In fact, the whites themselves would arrange a German intervention into Finland.

The real target of the white attack were not the Russian soldiers, that was demonstrated by the war itself. The real target was the Finnish working class.

“There was no need of war to remove the Russian soldiers; they would have removed themselves in a little while.” (Upton, p. 272)

To give some perspective, according to historians such as Paasivirta (Suomi vuonna 1918, p. 206) only 1000-4000 Russians participated in the fighting. The exact number is not known, but it is small, and without question most of these soldiers were only acting in self-defence and trying to retreat to Soviet-Russia. The Soviet Russian government allowed volunteers to help the Finnish reds, but the Soviet government had its own war to fight and was not in a position to send troops. They gave the Finnish reds rifles and bullets, and also significant amounts of food.

The White war effort was not a war of independence, the capitalists themselves had a very mixed relationship with the independence movement (most of them were not committed to it) while the Russian Bolsheviks and Finnish socialists had supported Finnish independence much more strongly.

The White commander Mannerheim himself actually admitted that the real target of the war, were the Reds, who he calls huligans and bandits:

“The peasant army of independent Finland under my command does not wage war against Russia, but has risen to protect freedom and the legal government and to ruthlessly defeat the huligan and bandit forces, that publicly threaten the country’s legal order and property.” (Mannerheim quoted in S. Jägerskiöld, Gustaf Mannerheim 1918, p. 56)

“…Mannerheim himself proved that foundational claim of bourgeois propaganda, that supposedly a national liberation war had started in Finland, to be a lie, and admitted the class character of the war…” (Holodkovski, p.166)

The White government also told Sweden, that they were fighting a civil war and not a war with Russia. However, the Whites also wanted to deny that this was a class-war and instead claimed that the Reds were criminals and huligans:


“The Swedish government was told: The struggle which is now in progress in Finland is not a class war… but is a collision between, on the one side a legal social order… and on the other side plain terrorist activity… criminal gangs, which have initiated violence against all human and divine rights…” (Upton, p. 311)

“Mannerheim told the Swedish minister that… “the Reds have begun a rebellion…”” (Upton, p. 311)

Lastly, although the Russian troops did not want to fight, and were told to not interfere in Finnish affairs, and although the actual war was in fact fought between White Guards and Red Guards, and not between Finland and Russia, its worth mentioning that at times Russian soldiers still tried to defend themselves from the Whites. The Whites then tried to use this as proof of Russian aggression. The Whites executed their Russian prisoners and carried out mass killings and massacres against Russians, although reactionary monarchist Russian officers actually worked together with the Whites. Mannerheim himself had been a Czarist officer whose job it was to oppress Finland and other nations in the Russian Empire. Mannerheim did not speak Finnish, and had no ties with the Finnish people and he also had a soldier assistant who only spoke Russian. These were the aristocratic and militarist “independence warriors” who claimed they were not fighting a class war, but a “national war”.


THE WORKERS’ REVOLUTION

The Finnish social-democratic party was controlled by a center-left faction which had not been very keen on revolution. The party had decided by a narrow margin, to not carry out a revolution during the December General Strike. They had agreed to end the strike, in hopes of being able to form a government and carry out peaceful reforms. However now the socialists realized that the whites had secrelty built a massive army, were passing dictatorial laws and were preparing for a war to crush the workers, destroy the Red Guard, and strip the people of all their rights. The socialists saw the whites were being mobilized. The Reds finally began to make hasty preparations, 2 days before the white assault.

The working class itself was very militant, much more militant then the social-democrat politicians. The trade-union and the Red Guard were also quite revolutionary. The party had a very small right-wing faction, which opposed the revolution and immediately went into hiding when the revolution started. This right-wing group led by Väinö Tanner, later collaborated with the whites and the German invaders. The party also had a leftist revolutionary faction, but the biggest group were the center-leftists. The center-left was not keen to start a revolution, but when the civil war was imminent, they realized they needed to act, they needed to defend themselves, and they couldn’t simply abandon the workers to be slaughtered by the Whites. They started a revolution:

“The social-democratic party committee, the central command of the workers’ militia and the central command of the red guard published a declaration on 26. of January that an executive committee has been created as the highest revolutionary authority.” (Esa Koskinen, Veljiksi kaikki ihmiset tulkaa, s.54)

“The… declaration alerted the masses that the bourgeoisie has begun an armed attack against the working class movement to strip away those democratic rights, which it only recently won in the revolutionary struggle of the general strike” (Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-1918, p. 98)

“…the Workers’ executive committee gave the worker guards orders to prepare for occupying all government buildings and strategic locations.“ (Holodkovski, p. 175)

“The orders stated that mobilization of the worker guards was to be begun on the 26. of January at midnight and to be completed in three days. Worker guards were to be given special lists of people, who were to be arrested and transported to locations where guards were responsible for their safety and good treatment. After the order to begin the revolution is given, the parliament, the university, regional governments, highest government organs and banks are to be taken over under the supervision of persons appointed as worker guard comissars. The central command had the right to seize for itself those buildings and locations it saw fit as well as transportation and telephone. [Source: “Красный архив” (“Red archive”), 1940, vol. 2 (99), pp. 34, 35]” (Holodkovski, p. 175)

“Bourgeois newspapers were to be closed down.” (Hyvönen, p. 98)

“On the 27. of January the [more moderate] Workers’ guard and [the more militant] Red guard were merged, taking the name the Red guard.

The executive committee considered serious resistance by the white guards a possibility and gave the Red guard central command the following order: the Red guard has, if necessary the right to use armed force against those members of the white guard who attempt armed resistance. Those members of the white guard who surrender without resistance, must be disarmed. Their commanders must be arrested and transported to the militia building… the imprisoned or wounded must not be treated brutally or inhumanely… any weapons and large amounts of food must be confiscated and listed, signed by the owner of the supplies or two wittnesses. [Source: H. Soikkanen, Kansalaissota dokumentteina, II, pp. 34-35]“ (Holodkovski, pp. 175-176)

“Throughout the country corresponding messages were sent to [Red guard] regional commands… At 11 o’clock at night on January 27. Red guard detachments began to occupy locations mentioned in the orders of the previous day in the capital of Finland. A red lantern and red flag appeared in the tower of the workers’ club as a signal that the revolution had begun.” (Holodkovski, p. 176)

“…Helsinki was quickly taken under red control without a fight. By the end of January the most important cities of Southern Finland were under the control of the reds… A declaration of revolution to the people of Finland was published in The Worker on 28. of January, which stated that the working masses have taken state power in their hands. At the same time it encouraged all the working class organizations and [red] guards [and militias] to fulfill their revolutionary duty, everyone according to their ability.” (Koskinen, p. 54)

The following examples are from a Southern municipality:

“The command decided on 4. of February to announce that all weapons and ammunition were to be brought to the Red guard within 24 hours of the announcement… The confiscations happened without incident and e.g. in the manor of Vaanila Nyberg’s flying column was served pancakes and jam. [A local man] testified… that [the Red Guard leader] Nyberg was quiet and polite when conducting the gun search…” (Koskinen p. 62)

“The Red guard of Koikkala-Vaanila carried out gun confiscations with the help of 17 men and 6 horses in the villages of Koikkala, Hongisto, Röylä, Paksalo, Mynterlä, Vaanila and Lehmijärvi.” (Koskinen p. 62)

“The confiscations began on 4. of February. Aleksander Stick said he took part in the confiscations of weapons in at least 25 houses. They took the shotguns and browning rifles, which were taken to the workers’ club… on 5. of February… property owning farmers brought their guns voluntarily. But they were unusable as the owners had left parts of them at their homes.

The telephone centers were taken under control. In Koski-Suittila the watchman at the “phone-central” was to make sure the manager mrs. Åström only allowed calls to the food-authority, the doctor or drugstore. Other calls were not allowed. Elderly men worked as watchmen…

Travel without permit was not allowed. Permits were given by the local command. At [the train] station guards inspected those traveling by railway.” (Koskinen p. 62)

The workers’ executive committee stated in their declaration to the Finnish people:

“The great moment of the Finnish working class revolution has arrived. Today the working people of the country’s capital have bravely defeated the sinister den of oligarchy, that started a dangerous war against its own people… Members of the criminal senate prepared in the capital disgusting plans to have Finns spill the blood of their brother Finns, and a treacherous attack against the organized working class of Finland. In doing this they made themselves guilty in such brazen treason as to request foreign monarchist governments to send murderer troops to slaughter the Finnish people. Thus the entire freedom and life our our nation was in great danger… [the workers must] rise to save themselves and the whole nation from that destruction and misery… The senate has committed countless crimes to steal for itself that state power which belongs to the people. Apparently the main plot was that the senate wished to crush the working class movement with bloodshed, shackle all attempts at democracy and bury the poor people’s hopes for change in the slumber of death.” (“To the working people of Finland”, quoted in Holodkovski, p. 177)

So the revolution began. The Reds were still poorly organized and poorly armed compared to the whites and the whites also managed to steal most of the state’s funds to their new capital. The Reds occupied government buildings and infrastructure, organized control of public transport and created a system where travel was only allowed if one had a permit. This was to prevent spying, smuggling etc. The Reds tried to monitor the telephone centers to prevent spies from listening on calls, and to allow the scarce telephone to be used only for important calls. The Reds spent a lot of time confiscating weapons from local landlords, rich peasants and capitalists. The Reds easily took control (often practically without resistance) in all the southern areas, and in the bigger population centers in other regions of the country too.

The right-wing counter-revolutionary faction of Väinö Tanner split from the social-democrat majority and stayed in hiding throughout the civil war. At the end of the war these traitors collaborated with the Whites and invading Germans. The centrists united with the revolutionary left-wing faction of the social-democrats to support self-defence by workers, and to protect democracy from a capitalist military-monarchist dictatorship which the whites were building.


FIGHTING THE WAR

“In armed struggle the Finnish working class movement was forced to operate in unfamiliar circumstances. It was clearly visible in the formation and arming of the red guards and especially in directing the battles. A newly arising class, such as our working class was, could naturally never compete in the realm of military expertise with the ruling classes, who in that realm held all the experience. Officers are always serving the prevailing system, dependent on it and grown attached to it… The most populous and important region, Southern-Finland, ending up under working class control, made it possible for the reds to aim their attack towards the North, which the whites had chosen as their base area… But in order for the war effort to have been directed correctly, the red leadership would have needed to know the laws of revolutionary war. However, the revolutionary leadership of the red troops did not know them, and this was evident since the very beginning of the war effort.

Initially the reds quite correctly began advancing towards the North, but even so it wasn’t done with as much energy and determination as it could have. For example the Haapamäki—Pieksämäki railroad ended under white control due to the slow start of the red advance. When after stopping at Vilppula, the reds didn’t immediately make serious attempts to breach North, the whites were able to fortify this section of the railway under their control. Poor understanding of the character of a revolutionary war was also demonstrated by the fact that immediate firm actions were not taken to raise the red guards of the North to battle, and after the red guards of the North had suffered defeat, there weren’t serious attempts to organize them into a partisan movement behind white lines.

In preparation for the victory of the Russian October revolution the Bolsheviks always had the clear and determined goal to secure the military victory over their opponent. After the path of armed struggle had been chosen, every party organization prepared for an armed rising… When societal forces are being driven to an armed conflict, all other issues depend on this conflict; all other action must be subordinated to serve the armed effort in such a situation. — In this sense it is justified to criticize the actions of the Finnish social-democratic party. The party was late in preparing for the struggle and thus when the situation arose, couldn’t provide the necessary leadership to the most important struggle, that of the workers’ and tenant-farmers’ red guard. Important administrative actions and fulfilling the goals of the revolution could only lead to results if victory had first been insured in the war effort.

The early portion of the war resulted in the whites capturing Northern-Finland and the reds Southern-Finland. A front emerged accross the country from West to East. From Merikarvia through Ikaalinen, Virrat, Ruovesi, Vilppula, Jämsä, Mäntyharju, Savitaipale and Vuoksenniska all the way to Lake Lagoda. The military initiative shifted to the red guard in late February. In early March a general offensive was being planned, the goal of which was to capture the Haapamäki—Pieksämäki railroad. Clear signs of fatigue began to show among white troops. The peasant troops who had been forcibly conscripted or recruited through lies or bribery, now began to understand the nature of their war against the Finnish workers and tenant-farmers. Furthermore the monarchist agitation of the white officers and bourgeois newspapers helped to expose the real goals of the whites. Most of all, Spring was approaching and peasants were getting restless about neglecting their farms.” (Hyvönen, pp.117-119)

At the beginning of the war, both sides were still recruiting more troops. The Whites began forced conscription in their territory, while the Reds organized volunteers. Both tried to quickly throw forces at the front. The Reds still lacked weapons, but were able to mobilize ten thousand armed troops very quickly. During the course of the war, the size of both armies increased to 80,000 each.

The war can be understood in three phases: The formation of the front, the Red General Offensive, and the White General Offensive.

During the first phase, both sides rushed forwards. The Reds tried to advance North as fast as possible, and the Whites tried to run towards the South. Both sides thus tried to get more territory. This was important for controlling strategic locations and resources. It was particularly important to control railways, which played a huge role in the war. There were no tanks, and practically no cars. Resources and reinforcements were transported on rails, and armored trains were used in battle. I will discuss individual battles or series of battles in detail in further videos, but here I will give a brief overview of the war as a whole.

The first battle of the war was waged in Lyly, a village North of the city of Tampere on February 2nd. The frontline can be separated into three parts: the Northern Front, which formed North of Tampere, the Eastern front North of Vyborg, and the center front basically between them. It was convenient for the Whites that while population centers like Oulu, Varkaus and others were all taken over by workers, they were inside the White territory and far away from the Red territory in the South. The Whites could then go from town to town, and eliminate the Reds there.

The Reds were a bit too slow to advance forward and thus gave Whites an unnecessary advantage. The Reds also lacked the necessary military skills and military discipline, to carry out a massive general offensive. As I described in the article about the structure of the Red Guard army, the units were too decentralized to coordinate massive attacks. They could hold their own against the Whites, and defend successfully even though the Whites had superior weaponry and professional officers. But the Reds had a difficult time trying to attack.

However, it was understood that remaining on the defensive mean the death of any revolution, so the Reds correctly understood the importance of taking the initiative and attacking. The second period of the war was the Red General Offensive which lasted from the end of February to the middle of March. Fierce battles were fought during this time, but the Reds did not succeed in destroying the Whites.

However, time was not on the side of the Whites. They didn’t control industrial centers and would eventually run out of resources. Also as spring approached, the soldiers conscripted by the Whites wanted to go work on their farms. This might have been necessary in any case, as the Whites would otherwise start running out of food. The Reds could fight a long war and be completely fine, but the Whites couldn’t. The Whites were thus in a hurry to launch their own general offensive, and it had to succeed, otherwise they were ruined.

The Whites only won the war, because of the following reason: they agreed that Germany should invade Finland in the South and attack the Reds in the rear. In exchange, the Whites would turn Finland into a German protectorate with a German king. Finland would sign a highly exploitative trade agreement with Germany, and Germany would dominate Finland politically and economically.

Because of the German invasion the Reds had to split their forces. There was chaotic fighting in the rear against the rapidly advancing Germans, while also trying to hold the front in the North. The Whites on the other hand were able to concentrate their troops on an attack in the North, against Tampere. This was the most important battle of the war, and had massive casualties on both sides, and caused massive destruction in the city. The victory in Tampere and the German invasion in the South gave the Whites the initiative, and they were able to keep their attack rolling from then on. This lasted through March to the beginning of May.

During the final phase of the battle Mannerheim gave his notorious declaration to the people of Tampere:

“To the citizens and troops of Tampere! Resistance is futile. Raise a white flag and surrender. Enough citizen’s blood has been shed. Unlike the reds we don’t kill our prisoners. Send your representatives with a white flag. MANNERHEIM”



This was a complete lie. After the battle in Tampere the Whites carried out a mass extermination and slaughtered prisoners of war and civilians. This became a trend, and they carried massacres and atrocities after most victories. This is why practically every town in Finland, even smaller ones, have mass graves, and monuments to victims of the Whites. They continued mass killings after the war in the White Terror.


Mannerheim’s lie “we dont kill prisoners unlike the reds” was even more gross, because not only did the whites arrange mass killings of prisoners and civillians all the time, but the reds on the other hand practically never did. The red government never ordered any mass executions. The small amount of white prisoners or capitalist civillians who were killed, were killed by reckless undisciplined elements who disobeyd orders. This happened against the orders of the reds. On the other hand, Mannerheim in his notorious “weapon in hand”-order, instructed to treat all red guard prisoners as traitors, and the punishment for treason is the death sentence. For this reason the White Terror killed more then 30,000 people while the so-called “red terror” killed only around 1000 people. And this remarkably low number includes violence by random criminals and thieves, which was falsely blamed on the reds. The number also includes executions which the reds carried out against criminals and murderers who had infiltrated inside the red guard. Red guard members who committed crimes or violence against civilians were punished, sometimes with death. But for the Whites slaughtering civilians was policy, and those who criticized it were attacked.

As the Whites and Germans advanced, the Reds began moving East to escape to Soviet Russia. There they founded the Communist Party, and made plans to continue the struggle against the White dictatorship.

WHY DID THE REDS LOSE THE WAR?

I will start with the least important reasons, and end with the most important.

The Reds were militarily inexperienced, but this is somewhat unavoidable as the workers and poor peasants necessarily have less officers and career soldiers in their ranks. The ruling classes always foster a reactionary military. This situation was made more difficult because Finland hadn’t had a military since 1901. This meant that only very few members of the population had military training: practically only those who had served in the Tsarist military. Obviously the vast majority of Tsarist officers were far-right reactionaries, such as Mannerheim. Some had gone to Germany as “jägers” to be trained by the German Imperial army, but majority of these were right-wingers and wealthier people too. The police also had some training with weapons, but obviously most police officers were also rightists. This meant that the Reds had an exceptionally serious lack of military training. The situation was more favorable for the Bolsheviks as the October Revolution took place during WWI. The workers and peasants had been conscripted by the Tsar, and had been fighting the war for years and thus were already quite battle hardened and capable soldiers. Still, this difficulty wouldn’t have been insurmountable.

The Reds also had a serious tendency towards indecisiveness, softness, a reformistic and legalistic attitude and style of work. This is because they came from a reformistic background and had been under the influence of the reformist and opportunist 2nd international. The Finnish Reds were not rotted to the core by this opportunism, and in fact they overcame it. However, it caused problems and challenges. I’ve discussed the Reds military difficulties and softness in detail in part 6.

As a consequence of their softness and reformistic attitude, the Reds focused a lot on carrying out the policies which they promised: land reform, job programs, democracy, social welfare etc. but this was premature. They should’ve focused 100% of their efforts towards winnig the war. The Red government represented the highest point of Finnish society, it was truly the most humane, most free, most progressive and enlightened government that this land has ever had. However, it was tragically destroyed because they lost the war. The people’s dream was drowned in blood by the White butchers and their German masters.

The Finnish revolution began in the most difficult circumstances. The Bolsheviks were able to carry out their revolution at an opportune time, and only had to fight the civil war later. The Finnish revolution began as a civil war. This meant that organizing the government, the economy and everything else had to be done during the chaos of war. An exceptionally difficult task. The Reds also had to learn how to fight, how to lead an army, how to build an army, as the war was already raging. The Reds had not learned revolutionary skills before hand, everything had to be learned in the fighting itself. However, they were up to the task. They were learning. The Red Guard became a quite strong and capable fighting force, and if the war had lasted longer, if the Reds had had more time, they would’ve become truly skilled revolutionaries and they would’ve won.

The Finnish Reds were not familiar with Leninism other then superficially. They couldn’t read Russian and did not have a Leninist vanguard party. Their party was of the old social-democrat type, althought it was a leftist social-democrat party, and not a counter-revolutionary one. While the Leninists were conscious revolutionaries, the Finnish Reds were still somewhat groping in the dark. They had a revolutionary heart, but lacked the necessary knowledge and experience.

It is universally acknowledged these days that the revolution should’ve been started during the December 1917 General Strike. The workers were able to take power easily, they surprised the capitalists and the capitalists were not able to respond. It was a devastating mistake to end the strike and return to “normal” life. It gave the capitalists the opportunity to build up their army, make a deal with Germany, and launch the civil war at a time that was suitable for the Whites but unfavorable for the Reds. This is biggest mistake the Finnish Reds made, while their biggest deficiency was their unfamiliarity with Leninism.

However, despite all these difficulties, mistakes and problems, the Reds were becoming more experienced, were moving closer to Leninism and would’ve been able to rectify all the mistakes if not for the German invasion. The Whites needed Germany, and they would not have been able to fight a protracted war. However, the German invasion would probably not have happened if the Reds had taken power in December 1917. The German invasion would also possibly not have happened, if Leon Trotsky had not sabotaged the peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Kuusinen wrote:

“I forgot to mention a third cause of the defeat of our revolution in 1918: this was the well known theatrical gesture made by Comrade Trotsky at the first Peace negotiations with the representatives of the German Government at Brest-Litovsk (January/Februarv). The peace conditions proposed at that time by the German government were much more favourable than those dictated later, both for Soviet Russia and for the Finnish workers’ government. Before Comrade Trotsky left for Brest-Litovsk for the last time (at the end of January), Comrade Lenin told him that he should sign the peace treaty at once…

Had peace come about between Germany and Russia at that time, then it is highly probable that the German government would have sent no troops to Finland. This conclusion of ours is based upon the memoirs of German generals, published after the war.

But on 10th February, Comrade Trotsky refused to accept the conditions of peace offered by the Germans. A valuable month passed before the peace treaty was accepted, and during this time Soviet Russia was obliged to abandon Reval and other cities at our (Finland’s) back to the Germans. And during the same time the German troops struck their blow at us.” (O. W. Kuusinen, “A Misleading Description of the “German October””)



THE SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT LEADERSHIP IN THE REVOLUTION

Y. Sirola, O. W. Kuusinen & K. M. Evä


Around the time of the revolution, the social-democrat leadership began taking its first steps towards Bolshevization. Leaders such as Kuusinen and Sirola began studying the ideology of Leninism for the first time.

“Those leaders of the Finnish working class movement who later became founders of the Finnish communist party, began to gradually distance themselves from traditional parliamentary tactics and more and more adopt a firm revolutionary stance. This was aided by the experience of Soviet-Russia and becoming more closely familiar with Lenin’s ideas. At the end of 1917 Sirola began with the help of a Finnish-Russian dictionary, to read Lenin’s text “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”[source: E. Salomaa, Yrjö Sirola sosialistinen humanisti, p.225]“ (Holodkovski, p. 150)

“On 12. of January he published in “The Worker” his article titled “Will the situation develop to a revolution?” [Kehittyykö tilanne vallankumouseksi?], where he stressed especially those questions which were important for supporters of revolution: pointed out Marx’s words that ending up on the defensive, is the death of an uprising, thought it essential to follow Danton’s slogan “Courage, courage and once more courage”, and explained how important it was for the bolsheviks to win the support of the peasantry. [source: E. Salomaa, Yrjö Sirola sosialistinen humanisti, pp.226-227]

A strong desire to look into Lenin’s works had also arisen in Kuusinen after he had met Lenin and discussed with him shortly before the October revolution. [Source: U. Vikström, Torpeedo, p. 50] For Kuusinen also, the problem was that he didn’t speak Russian. Kuusinen only began studying Lenin’s book “The State and Revolution”, which is of special importance in taking a correct Marxist stance on the bourgeois state and for understanding the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, during the final period of the Finnish revolutionary government, and therefore this theoretical study couldn’t influence the revolutionary government’s policy.” (Holodkovski, p. 150)

It became evident that a Leninist party of the Bolshevik type was essential for a successful revolution but the Finnish socialists were lagging in behind in this regard, still influenced by the reformist trend of Kautsky and the 2nd international. Both Kuusinen and Sirola would later write their own criticisms of the SDP’s reformism from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. The most well known is “The Finnish Revolution: A Self-Criticism” by Kuusinen.

SOURCES:

Upton, The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918

Holodkovski, Suomen työväen vallankumous 1918

Mannerheim, Erinnerungen

Paasivirta, Suomi vuonna 1918

Suodenjoki & Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa

S. Jägerskiöld, Gustaf Mannerheim 1918

Esa Koskinen, Veljiksi kaikki ihmiset tulkaa

Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-1918

“Красный архив”, 1940, vol. 2

H. Soikkanen, Kansalaissota dokumentteina

Kuusinen, “A Misleading Description of the “German October”

Salomaa*, Yrjö Sirola sosialistinen humanisti

Vikström, Torpeedo



*Salomaa was a communist who became a big revisionist eurocommunist especially since the 1960s. The history books he wrote are still mostly good and correct, and had to follow the party line more or less. However, after de-stalinization he used every opportunity to falsely attack Stalin in his books.

The Finnish Communist Revolution (1918) PART 6: THE RED GUARD AND RED ARMY

The working class guards were initially created for numerous different reasons.

When the Russian Tsar was overthrown, the Russian police in Finland was also dismantled. Finland had no police force of its own, and for this reason a so-called People’s Militia was created, to serve as a police force. The militia was an officially recognized government organ, but it was very different in composition from a typical capitalist police. First of all, many police officers who had served under the Tsar were seen as unreliable or treasonous, either by the government itself or by the population and were thus not allowed into the Militia or were later kicked out due to public protest. The purging of the Tsarists from the police force allowed new people to get in. The Militia was thrown together very quickly and spontaneously to fill the need for a police force, and these factors allowed for a very large working class representation in it. In some places which did not have a militia, the workers themselves created outright proletarian militias.

“At first, workers played an important role in the people’s militia. Later the workers’ role in the militias decreased due to opposition from the bourgeoisie and the senate… The militia did not become an organ loyal to the bourgeoisie, in order to guard the interests of its members it even utilized such familiar working class methods as strikes.” (Holodkovski, p.9)

The militias sometimes served as a basis for the future red guards. The biggest reason red guards were created, was to keep order during strikes and protests, especially to protect the workers from white guards who tried to smash strikes or to bring in strike breakers. The parliamentary strategy had failed and therefore workers resorted more and more to direct actions like demonstrations and surrounding government buildings, demanding concessions from the government. In these conflicts the white guard tried to rescue to capitalist politicians and the red guard tried to protect the demonstrators. At that point the red guards were still unarmed.

Historians Suodenjoki and Peltola explain:

“Workers had created red guards and order-keeping forces already in the spring of 1917… The worker guards – similarly to white guards – were not originally intended for war, but for local purposes. The worker guards were a credible voluntary force for keeping order, in localities where such a force did not exist. During the year 1917 guards were created in conjunction with strikes and other conflicts, but even then their purpose was clearly self-defense. [Pertti Haapala, Kun yhteiskunta hajosi. Suomi 1914-1920, pp. 238-240]

The social-democratic party was originally not involved in creating guards. Until the end of the summer the majority of party leadership more likely opposed the creation of guards in their attempt to minimize the spread of unrest. However, more guards were created during the summer and radical revolutionism increased, which forced the party to reconsider the situation. The party had to try to gain control of the guards, which were being created regardless. Since the beginning of September party organizations began taking a more active part in the creation of worker guards.” [Klemettilä, 38-40] (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 237)

“The October [1917] congress of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation, which discussed the food-crisis had a big impact on the creation of worker guards… [A delegate from Tampere] declared that if nothing else works, the food situation must be solved by creating a workers’ dictatorship. Other delegates voiced similar opinions. [Marja-Leena Salkola, Työväenkaartin synty ja kehitys punakaartiksi 1917-18 ennen kansalaissotaa 2, pp. 17, 53]

As a result of the meeting the SAJ [Finnish Trade-Union Federation] sent a demand to the Finnish government on 20. of October, which called for the trade and distribution of food to be handed entirely to the state. It also demanded price controls for food, prices to be set reasonably low to meet the buying power of the consumers, as well as increasing food production and importing… the SAJ leadership encouraged workers to create order-keeping guards “for self-defense and to prepare for any possible situation.” The message from the SAJ was also accepted by the social-democrat party executive committee. This was the first time the leadership of the working class movement publically encouraged the workers to create red guards.” [Salkola, pp. 17-21](Suodenjoki & Peltola, pp. 237-238)

“The reason behind encouraging the creation of worker guards was the worsening food shortage. The working class movement demanded more effective methods from the government to combat the shortage and prepared for general strike, in case the food question could not be solved satisfactorily.

“SAJ’s sharply worded message… activated the workers significantly… Guards were formed in many places where they didn’t previously exist – with the exception of strike-watch forces and other minor order keeping forces. Red guard organisations existed in at least 17 municipalities and at the start of the general strike on 14. of December there were guards in at least 28 municipalities, that is in 4/5 municipalities of Pirkanmaa…

“In Tampere a local order-keeping force which functioned based on when it was needed, had already been created following the February revolution. In May, a more regular “Militia force of the Workers’ organizations of Tampere” was created, which still remained non-military in character. When the party began observing and guiding the creation of red guards… It got the name “Working people’s organization guard of Tampere”. The guard’s structure was formed by trade-union chapters: members were recruited from the best men of the local chapters.” [Pertti Haapala, Tehtaan valossa. Teollistuminen ja työväestön muodostuminen Tampereella 1820-1920. Historiallisia tutkimuksia 133, p. 313, Klemettilä, Salkola pp. 128-134] (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 238)

“…in the rules adopted for worker guard organizations on October 23. their mission was defined as protecting the rights of workers – it was felt that workers… needed guards for their safety, since the bourgeoisie was creating its own white guard forces to safeguard its interests. [Source: Salkola, pp. 33, 37-45]

In some municipalities of Pirkanmaa creation of worker guard organizations was clearly a reaction to the bourgeoisie creating white guards. For example in Orivesi and Hämeenkyrö the workers explained the reason they needed a red guard force was due to the presence of the white guard. It is worth noting that in 2/3 of the municipalities in Pirkanmaa the white guard was certainly formed before the worker guard.” [Salkola, pp. 312-313, 532-533] (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 239)

The people’s militia was merged with the red guard in many places, beginning with the December 1917 general strike. An order from red guard leadership read:
“Keeping order is one of the duties of the workers’ guard; the workers’ militia will join the guard.” (quoted in Punakaarti Rintamalla, p. 105)

A number of different stages can be seen in red guard formation: 1. the public militia, 2. then the stage of creating purely proletarian order-keeping forces, 3. the creation of red guards for local self-defense, local strikes and demonstrations, 4. the party and trade-union federation getting involved and guards being formed nationwide in a centrally coordinated way, 5. and finally the red guards becoming a military force.

“In many places the guards were created by local workers’ societies. Social-democratic municipal organizations also often served as the founders. [Salkola, p. 68] Trade-union chapters did this rarely… because they were strongest in large cities where guards were already formed earlier. Passivity of trade-union chapters is also explained by the fact that… municipal organizations and workers’ societies… were the highest local organs, they naturally took responsibility for creating guard organizations. In some cases other types of worker organizations also created guards.

Selection of applicants to the guard was often done in meetings of worker organizations. All volunteers were not necessarily accepted.” (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 241)

“According to the rules of workers’ order-keeping guards, only organized workers were to be accepted as members. This happened naturally, as recruits were chosen by workers’ societies and trade-union chapters from their own members. The rules also required that recruits had to be “class conscious, knowledgeable about social-democratic methods and otherwise trustworthy comrades.” (Suodenjoki & Peltola, pp. 241-242)

ORGANIZATION AND STRUCTURE OF THE RED GUARD ARMY:

A military history website explains the organization of the red army as follows:

“Organisation used by Finnish Red Guards was basically borrowed from Battalions from Army of Finnish Grand Duchy, which existed pre year 1900. Red Guard organisation had also battalion – division levels, but in reality its companies fought as independent companies, not as battalions or regiments… In reality the size of Red Guard company varied in between 70 – 150 men.” (Source: https://www.jaegerplatoon.net/FORMATIONS1.htm)

The typical structure was given as the following: A Red Guard rifle company was lead by a company commander and a commissar directly below him, the company was divided into 4 platoons, each lead by a platoon leader, with 2 rifle squads of a dozen men under him.

The structure for a machine gun company is given as the following: A company commander and a commissar, with 3 machinegun platoons under them, 4 machineguns per platoon.


The full army structure was this: 4 companies formed a battalion, 4 battalions a regiment, 2 regiments a brigade and 2 brigades a division. However, the Red Guard typically fought as separate companies (several hundred soldiers) or some times as Battalions (thousand soldiers or even more) but coordinating operations larger then this was practically never done. The larger units served as a command structure and for moving troops around, but had no significance in battle.

Source: https://www.jaegerplatoon.net/FORMATIONS1.htm

Historians corraborate this information, as roughly being true, but there were local differences.

“The most important basic military unit was a company, whose strength was 110 men (2+4+8+96). The company was divided into four platoons, and each platoon consisted of 27 men (1+2+24). However in reality, many companies did not follow these quantities but were lacking. Local units in the rural areas could vary from a few men to hundreds in size. On top of that there were special companies (e.g. machine gun, flying and artillery companies). For example in Virkkala, the flying A-company consisted only of a single platoon (27 men).” (Koskinen, s.61)

“The strength of the guard in Tampere [in late 1917] was apparently around couple thousand. It included three actual battalions and a shorthanded railway workers’ battalion, which were all organized into a regiment a little before the general strike [of December 1917]. On top of that, a few special units were formed in connection with the Tampere guard, such as an espionage and intelligence unit, an orchestra and an ambulance unit. Around October-December a “Workers order-keeping guard’s women’s organizations” was created for the guard’s medical care, which tried to recruit members e.g. through newspaper notices.[Klemettilä, pp. 44-47] In the surrounding municipalities at least in Virrat the guard included a women’s organization.” [Salkola, Työväenkaartin synty ja kehitys punakaartiksi 1917-18 ennen kansalaissotaa 2, p. 76](Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 242)

In Helsinki the red guard also formed several so-called naval companies from sailors, “for the purpose of acquiring ships for the use of the red guard, and for coastal defense” (Punakaarti Rintamalla, p. 169)

In practice squads of about dozen men formed platoons, which formed companies of around 100 or 200 soldiers. Companies formed battalions which could be almost a 1000 soldiers. They in turn formed regiments of thousands. Capitalist historian Upton writes:

“On paper, the organization of the Red Guard looked like that of a normal army; the men were enlisted in companies of 96 men, four of these formed a battalion, and four battalions a regiment. Thus Helsinki Red Guard began as two regiments in January, and then added three more by the end of March. Viipuri raised 131 companies, all based on workplaces or villages, which formed nine regiments; Tampere, Turku, and Lahti all raised regiments. But the regiments and the battalions were administrative and record-keeping structures; the fighting unit was the company. Only on rare occasions is a battalion found operating as a fighting force. The Red Guard was therefore an army that consisted of hundreds of largely self-governing companies, of very uneven quality and size, and any effective operational orders had to be directed to the company level.”
(Upton, pp. 404-405)

“a genuine comradely spirit did exist, a sense of loyalty to mates, to class and to the cause, which held the Red Guard together in the absence of the usual military sanctions. But it was not always enough.” (Upton, p. 407)

The Red Guard army was under the leadership of the Workers’ Executive Committee, the highest revolutionary authority. The Red Guard had a national general staff, regional staff and local staff. The general staff near front-lines were called “front staff”.


“In many places guard staff was created already weeks before the class war… They carried out various administrative tasks… Though it had been originally planned that they would serve some kind of militaristic functions, their real work turned out completely differently: the original guard staffs became sort of civillian bureaus, committees and for military purposes new committees emerged: the front staffs…” (Punakaarti Rintamalla, p. 163)

The regional front staffs commanded entire army groups, and although the structure fluctuated all the time, there were three army groups and basically three main fronts: so called “Northern Front” near Tampere, “Central Front” around Savonia and “Eastern Front” around Karelia.

“[Front] staffs were chosen via heads of detachments choosing a leader, and one or two assistant leaders, a commander of artillery, commander of machine guns, reconnoisance, food and housing etc… front commanders were appointed by the national general staff.” (Punakaarti Rintamalla, p. 167)

A red guard on the central front explained their command structure as follows:

“The front staff divided its work in the following way: a) war department, b) finance department, c) munitions committee, d) medical department. The war department was split into four parts: 1) Leadership made assault and defense plans, troop movements and maneuvers with the commander. 2) The equipment officer handled acquiring ammunition and other war materials and delivering them to the front… 3) The cartographer prepared battle maps. 4) Rapporteur was tasked to gather reports arriving from different fronts and to unite them to a coherent whole, as well as prepare and deliver all messages from the war department.” (Punakaarti Rintamalla, p. 117)

A red guard on the Eastern front said: “The leaders were elected in mass meetings of soldiers, all the way up to the highest commanders and commanders were changed quite often” (Punakaarti Rintamalla, p. 197)

Local command was typically 5 or 6 people, about half chosen by party organizations and half by the soldiers:

“According to rules the local guard leadership consisted of a five member executive committee. Three members were chosen by the local worker organization delegate assembly [a soviet], social-democratic municipal organization or workers’ society, while the red guard members chose two. In many municipalities the local guard leadership was chosen in this way but not nearly everywhere.[Salkola, Työväenkaartin synty ja kehitys punakaartiksi 1917-18 ennen kansalaissotaa 2, pp. 82-84] For example in Tampere the leadership… which was referred to as central command, included six members. Three had been chosen by the municipal organization, three by the guard members. This was done to insure the guard members had equal influence with the municipal organization.

“According to the guard’s rules, officers were elected by the members. This reflected the guard’s character as originally a non-military organization, familiar methods from working class movement were adopted into their work.”[Klemettilä, p. 46-47] (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 242)

A massive book about the civil war by the Finnish ministry of education states:

“The red guard’s organization already existed before the outbreak of war. At the top there was the national general staff, and under it regional and local staffs.”
(Kansanvaltuuskunta punaisen Suomen hallituksena, Osmo Rinta-Tassi, p.188)

That was the original situation. However, as we saw from other sources, to handle actual fighting separate front general staffs were established.

The book by the Finnish ministry of education further states that “The organization of the top military leadership only properly got going in March, when the strategic position of the reds was already weakening.” and “Separation of civillian and military administration advocated… was completed only as late as 20th of March [after it] had been prepared for over a month”. This only goes to show the challenges the reds faced, because they were relatively less prepared for the war then the whites and were amateurs in military matters.

The structure of the red state, consisted of amauters: average workers and peasants, not professional bureaucrats. Their military was really a paramilitary, based on volunteers with no training. As a result the structure and methods of the red guard varied from place to place, there was a lot of confusion about which institution should do what, often times military organizations like the red guard, were forced to carry out purely civillian tasks and even in military matters they acted in very non-military ways. They elected their officers, shared power between red guards and civillian organizations and in many ways behaved exactly like trade-union organizations with guns, rather then a professional army.

“The term “staff” is rather misleading because of its military connotations, since most of these committees had nothing to do with military operations, but were concerned with organization and record-keeping at the rear. They were responsible for internal security, which involved organizing guards and patrols, and making searches and arrests, but these quasi-military functions were really police duties. The civilian character of most staffs was reflected in their membership, which tended

to consist of the older party members, and the mountains of paper that they have left behind them show that they were mainly occupied in calculating pay, distributing food and clothing, arranging accommodation, and issuing endless permits and certificates. The term staff was also misleading because these bodies did not see themselves as the sources of executive authority, but as delegate bodies, elected by and responsible to the mass membership, so that all major decisions had to be referred to general meetings… When companies were brought together for operations, the commanders and their staffs would elect delegates to form a Front Staff, which actually directed military operations…” (Upton, p. 408)

“The red guard consisted of workers and the rural poor.”
“It naturally did not include any bank directors, large landowners, shop-owners etc… 65.63% or two thirds of reds who fell in battle were workers and farm-laborers. With house servants and temp workers included the number is 77.96%. Among whites who fell in battle there were only 17% workers, but there were 45.38% land-owning peasants. The white army also included other members of the wealthier classes – employers etc. Among reds who fell in battle only 5.36% owned their own plot of land. [V. Rasila, Kansalaissodan sosiaalinen tausta, pp. 40-41]” (Holodkovski, p.308)

“Soldier material on the red side was from a military and class standpoints undoubtedly more homogenous then on the white side and there was enough of it voluntarily available. The working population of cities and industrial centers, including its skilled sections, who because of the influence of the working class movement had become used to solid organization and discipline, was ready to step voluntarily into the ranks of the red guard. The agricultural workers and tenant farmers were also voluntarily on the side of the reds.

The red military leadership on the otherhand could not even be compared to the white leadership. After all, military training had not been available in Finland for decades. Learning to use even basic weapons took time, and there were no teachers. The reds had only one officer at their disposal, Russian officer colonel Svetsnikov… the red military leadership practically developed entirely during battle.

The number of soldiers in red guards rose up to 20-30 thousand during the beginning of the civil war. Initially there were insufficient weapons. Enough weapons could be given to frontline troops only after fighting had already begun.

The exact number of fighers in the red guard is not known. At its peak the number was around 70-80 thousand.

While the white forces had already been organized into typical military structure and a hierarchy had been created down to local divisions and squads by the time the battles began, the red guards on the other hand were born out of the members of workplaces or workers’ organizations. Thus, companies could form from the workers of some workplace, or some organization would form its own company, well known were e.g. the company of the Jyry [working class] sports club. Rural workers’ associations formed their own red guard detachments, and often those in the same municipality would form a detachment. This was a natural starting point for the founding of a voluntary class army. Its advantage was the sense of tightly-knit unity in the detachments – after all, everyone knew each other. Leaders were chosen from those people who already enjoyed the men’s trust based on their previous activities. On the other hand, when creating larger army units and when troops were moved away from their homes, the local nature of the units hindered their utilization for broader tasks. The defense of one’s own home was seen as more important, often times people waited for instructions from the command at their home municipality etc. But as the battles went on the red guards formed a comparatively solid foundation for a united army. Military experience was learned in practice and the officer core also grew, so that in a few months the Finnish workers’ red guard could already successfully perform even difficult tasks.” (Hyvönen, pp. 92, 94-95)

WHY DID PEOPLE JOIN THE RED GUARD?

The working class and poor peasantry of Finland joined the Red Guards to fight for their rights. The capitalist government was not willing to grant the workers’ demands, and instead had escalated the situation towards civil war. The workers had only two options: to fight for a better future, or to surrender and live in misery.

The old propaganda narrative of the capitalists, was that people supposedly only joined the Reds, due to communist agitation. However, this has proven to be a lie. The people lived in terrible poverty, had a real threat of starvation, and no political rights. They knew these facts from their own lives, not from the mouths of agitators.

After these capitalist lies were debunked, liberal historians have tried to look for real answers to the question why the workers joined the Red Guards. Let’s look at the answers they provide. One historian from 1998 writes the following:

“… in the entire country, the economic situation was bad, unemployment was high and there was a shortage of food. Poverty and unemployment forced many to consider joining the red guard. In interrogations after the war, when the winning [capitalist] side asked the prisoners’ reasons for joining, this explanation was emphasized. After all, it was a neutral reason for joining. For this reason the significance of unemployment for joining was surely exaggerated.”
(Koskinen p. 63)

He concludes that economic conditions were indeed terrible, people lived in poverty, and there wasn’t enough food. But he also admits, that when questioned by Whites, the workers and peasants naturally would not want to admit to being socialists. They would much rather give more politically neutral reasons. Of course the two questions are interconnected, the workers supported socialism precisely because life in capitalism was so bad for them. But while they could admit that their poverty was bad, admitting that they were socialists usually would lead to their deaths.

So, poverty and unemployment were the most commonly given reasons: “I was forced by poverty”, “I joined for bread”, “I joined since there were no jobs or food”. (Koskinen)

However, it seems clear workers also did not make the decision to join the Red Guard as individuals. They had a sense of community. Though joining the Red Guards was not mandatory, and indeed, only organized workers were even allowed to join, still there probably was some peer-pressure. Many workers considered it obvious to join the Red Guard:

J.E.Palonen: “I joined because everyone else joined”

G.V.Solberg: “There was no particular reason. It was just the general opinion that everyone should belong to the RG [Red guard]”

A.Vilen: “Joined because others joined too and it was said there were no jobs besides the red guard”

K.E.D. Nyberg: “I joined because people looked at you funny if you didn’t join, and because work was stopped at the factory”

“However, many reasons become intertwined and a person makes the decision often without even understanding all the factors. Economic, ideological, psychological or physical pressures blend together.” (Koskinen p. 64)

One worker testified:
“While working as a carpenter in the cement factory shipyard on 5. of February four armed men showed up and said all organized workers had to come to the workers’ club… and others join the guard as soldiers. Admits: joining was partially voluntary and partially necessitated by economic reasons…” (Koskinen p. 64)

“There weren’t many red guards who openly spoke about their ideological views when interrogated [by whites] after the war:
Villehard Virtanen: “Saw the guard’s function as keeping order and wanted to help”
Fredrik-Malin: “Joined to improve workers’ conditions by his own initiative”

Fredrik-Malmstedt: “Joined due to sense of duty and opinion” (Koskinen p. 64)

“At the outbreak of war the membership of the red guard was selectively chosen and in principle voluntary. Membership was only open to members of workers’ organizations.” (Koskinen p. 65)

Another liberal historian writes:”In a factory town like Nokia, it was almost impossible for a factory worker to not join the red guard. The work community had a strong social pressure: joining the guard did not mean taking a strong political stance, instead it was normal to join together with everyone else. Due to its large factories and strong workers’ organizations it was possible in Nokia to recruit large amounts of people to the guard. Recruiting happened largely from trade-union chapters. Almost all of the guard members of Nokia were factory workers or other workers. On top of ideology, especially unemployed people might join because of the wage paid to red guard members.” [Jussi Koivuniemi, Tehtaan pillin tahdissa. Nokian tehdasyhdyskunnan sosiaalinen järjestys 1870-1939] (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 241)

“In the treason trials after the war, ex-guard members understandably didn’t want to admit joining the guard voluntarily for ideological reasons. The accused rather justified joining with economic motives: by joining the guard one could get help in surviving the economic difficulties, unemployement and food shortage. Guard members were given a good 15 mark daily wage, a meal and support for their family. This must have impacted at least the youth and unemployed membership…

In the interrogations many ex-guard members also said they had been pressured, for example instructions coming from the trade-union. Beginning in March [when the city was encircled and sieged by the whites] there was also pressure at work sites in the city: men were demanded to join or risk being fired, which lead to the membership increasing. At the end of March the demand to join was extended to all men between ages 18 and 50 living in the city.” (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 257, citing Klemettilä)

“Although the Red Guard was both a voluntary and a selective force, and would enlist only organized workers, the initial enthusiasm produced an ample flow of recruits. Recruitment was usually a group decision by a trade union branch or the village workers’ organization, so that many early Red Guard units were simply identified by the trade or workplace of the members.” (Upton, p. 396)

“To the Finnish workers, whose womenfolk commonly labored with them in factory and field, it came naturally to recruit women as well. Women sometimes formed a significant proportion of the membership, as in Tampere, where there were 901 women against 5,094 men; and some of them got into the firing line, to the horror and disgust of the Whites.” (Upton, p. 397)

Unlike the whites, the red government never had a policy of conscription or forcing people to join the red guard. This is another example of the social-democrats’ commitment to only pursue policies democratically, legally and based on voluntary action. The whites increased their army from 10-20 thousand to 70-80 thousand through forced conscription. The reds built a largely volunteer army of the same size (80 thousand). With conscription they could have outnumbered the whites, however the reds never took firm action to implement conscription.

“The population fleeing from the municipality of Virrat intensified after the outbreak of the war, when the whites implemented conscription. The amount of people avoiding the draft was highest in Virtainkylä, 123 men, 107 in Toisvesi and 83 in Vaskivesi… Tens of people fleeing from Virrat fought in the “Wirrat company” which included a total of 300 reds from Virrat… One quarter of the guard members didn’t belong to workers’ associations at all… reason for joining seems to have been to avoid being conscripted [by the whites]. [Nieminen Jaana, Kansallisesta jakautumisesta kunnalliseen eheytymiseen: vuoden 1918 sota Virroilla]”(Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 263)

Near the end of the war, it was becoming clear that the whites had gained the upper hand. This prompted the red government to take stronger actions. The extent of this was still not conscription. The government only ordered those people who had voluntarily joined the red guard and then left, to rejoin. There were individual cases of local reds pressuring others to join, but this was never a policy.

The reds also considered a plan to recruit those working in unemployment relief-jobs to the red guard, but this was never done except by the city of Tampere during the siege and encirclement. Kuusinen later criticized the red government’s policy for not making it mandatory for unemployed people and especially capitalists, intellectuals and members of the non-working classes to join work-programmes. There should have been an all out responsibility for everyone not serving in the red guard, to work in order to support the war effort. This wasn’t done. Instead capitalists and aristocrats were often left to sit inside their homes, and in several cases, they conducted spying activity on behalf of the whites.

“For example the property owner Arvo Mattila from Southern-Teisko provided information to the whites. He wired his telephone to the telephone line between Kuru and Southern-Teisko and listened to the red’s telephone conversations in his house.[Laitinen Erkki, Kurun historia 1867-1918, Vanhan Ruoveden historia III:5,1]” (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 260)

The red guard had a reconnoisance division, but there was no secret police or intelligence service to combat spies. The Russian Bolsheviks and Ukrainian Anarchists had a secret police to combat spying and sabotage, but the Finnish reds didn’t realize the necessity of such a thing.

Upton says:
“The Red government was almost unique among revolutionary governments in never establishing its own political or secret police.” (Upton, The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918, p. 374)

In general the red guard’s activities were characterized by extremely anti-authoritarian policies and measures to the point of detriment.

“Altogether in the first weeks of the war 150 white guards were arrested in the city [of Tampere], but in most cases they were simply let go. The city’s red guard was mainly concerned with confiscating weapons. [Vainio Marko, Yksi opisto – yksi liike. Tampereen teknillisen opiston suojeluskuntakomppania Tampereen suojeluskunnan osana 1917-1918, p. 94]” (Suodenjoki & Peltola, p. 260)


SPYING AND COUNTER-ESPIONAGE

The Reds didn’t have a secret police, but lets discuss the type of reconnaissance and counter-espionage units that they actually did have. A red guard author writes:

“There were two types of reconnaissance divisions, one front-line and the other so-called local divisions. Tampere had both of these. One was called the Northern Front Spy Department, which practiced front-line espionage on the enemy side, and the other was the Tampere Intelligence Department… Before the actual battles, they were tasked with keeping an eye on the enemy’s movements and combat preparations, trying to find out their weapons depots and secret training places, generally to find out what is going on among the counter-revolutionaries… The department also arrested individuals from whom weapons were found or who otherwise acted as counter-revolutionaries.

After general mobilization, the duties of the intelligence department also expanded to include operations throughout the North-West. In this area, it had the right to conduct home inspections, confiscations, and arrests. These measures were assisted by local Red Guards and all the captured whites and other criminals were transported to Tampere, where the intelligence department carried out a preliminary investigation. The resulting protocols were to be sent to the Revolutionary Court, which finally convicted or acquitted the accused. Indeed, in several cases, the verdict was acquittal, even for persons who would have deserved nothing more than to stand in front of a line of rifles. Often, the sentences were such as to be banned from leaving the area and ordered to report to the intelligence department office, some every day, some once a week.

Afterwards, it seems ridiculous that such sentences were given during a revolution, but that is how it was. Those people were thus given full freedom to continue to act as counter-revolutionaries, and this leniency was also one of the factors in our defeat … as far as Tampere was concerned, only two death sentences were given, and the people in question were in the red guard. One was the commander of the Ikaalinen front, Seppälä, who was accused of selling out his troops. It was proved that he had received 40,000 marks for organizing his troops in such a way that the whites had a favorable opportunity to attack … The other was named Anthoon, he was an interpreter for the front staff of the Northern Front, and an enemy agent. He passed all the information he received from the staff to the whites.” (A. R–n., “Punaisten tiedustelutoiminnasta”, Suomen luokkasota: Historiaa ja muistelmia)

British capitalist historian Upton writes:

“The possibility of repression was much reduced because the Red regime had no political or security police… Red security measures were simply incompetent:

[white politician] Louhivuori [who was hiding in a hospital as a patient] was able to go into town, accompanied by a nurse, and conferred with Svinhufvud on three separate occasions. He remembered a house in view of the hospital and of the Red Guard checkpoint outside, which had a stream of young visitors carrying violin cases. “One could observe that what they were carrying was

extremely heavy”; in fact they were smuggling arms into a White Guard magazine and strongpoint… The Whites made brilliant use of telephone monitoring, using friendly telephone staff… The most vulnerable point in White security was the domestic servants, on whom they were wholly dependent… there must have been significant numbers of disaffected servants who could have been used to monitor what went on in bourgeois households, but no effort was made to tap this obvious source. [VA [State Archive], 35-39; Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenaisyyssenaatti, 298fll., 311; Työmies, 28.3.18.]

In these conditions the White resistance could operate with some impunity. The medical profession abused its immunity to conceal fugitives or provide safe transport in ambulances or under the escort of medical personnel; the foreign consuls, who were usually native businessmen, used their consular status in partisan fashion to claim diplomatic immunity for their premises and communications. [Vyborg] Red Guard pointed out that the Belgian, Italian, and Norwegian consuls were all leading officials in the White Guard, but they were told to leave them alone. [The workers’ Information Bulletin] was justified in claiming, on 15 April, that the Consular Corps had persistently abused their immunities to help the government’s enemies. The Swedish embassy did the same…” (Upton, 384)

Marx and Engels criticized the Paris Commune for being too lax and soft. The same criticism can be made of the Finnish red guard.

The white senators managed to escape from Helsinki to the new white capital of Vaasa. Bourgeois politicians were not arrested like they should have been.

White Guard Senator Talas stated in his memoirs that:
“If the reds had been bolder they probably could have gotten all of the bourgeois senators arrested… Arresting the government could have caused the war to end completely differently. Without the help of the [white] government of Vaasa it is doubtful if Mannerheim could have inspired support among the population of the North which was needed to defeat the reds. The reds would naturally have called Mannerheim’s action a revolt against the ‘lawful government’ by a general coming from Russia. As Mannerheim was still unknown to the Finnish people, such talk could have influenced at least part of the population” (O. Talas, Muistelmia, p. 71)

“Leaders of the bourgeois groups in the parliament were also not isolated [or arrested] but they were able to carry out counter-revolutionary activities. They published appeals to the Finnish people and attacked the revolution as an unheard of act of violence [Talas, p.72] … This helped to direct and organize counter-revolutionary forces” (Holodkovski, p.180)

Svinhufvud, the leader of the white government was trapped inside Red Helsinki, but was able to escape.

“The rescue of Svinhufvud… showed how damaging the hostility of bourgeois experts and technicians, whether Finnish or Russian, could be. Bourgeois officers, sea captains, navigators, engineers, telephonists and telegraphists, doctor and nurses, had to be employed if society was to continue, but none of them could be trusted to be neutral at moments of crisis. Only severe methods of repression could have overcome this menace to the security of the Red regime and it was not prepared to adopt such methods.” (Upton, p. 387)

All talk about the red government being a supposed totalitarian dictatorship is nonsense. It was far more lenient and less authoritarian then the white government, which was attempting to build either military dictatorship or monarchy and which outlawed the communist party and most other leftist organizations during its rule after the war. The red government was democratic, reformist and soft to a degree which hampered the success of the revolution.

Even British bourgeois historian Upton, despite being confused about many other things, says quite correctly that the red government: “in dividing over whether to maintain the closure of the bourgeois press, showed that they had not fully grasped that they were presiding over a war, in which there could be no question of allowing enemy newspapers to be published.”
(Upton, p. 288)

“They did not see that the fact that revolution is an act of violence… They did not see that war, the fact that blood had been shed, shifted the political conflict onto a qualitatively new level.”
(Upton, p. 302)

“In the heat of a civil war, these men who were principled atheists, came near to the Christian ideal of loving their enemies… It was a sentiment that their Christian opponents certainly did not reciprocate. Political realists will question the[ir] wisdom… and they had failed lamentably to grasp what was needed if the revolution was to be carried to a successful conclusion… If their precepts were followed, the revolution was certainly doomed to political and military defeat, but its moral superiority over the victors would be incontestable.” (Upton, pp. 303-304)

“The mildness with which the Whites were treated did not go unnoticed, and some Reds thought it scandalous. They could see the class enemy apparently leading a comfortable, carefree existence, while workers suffered and died for the cause. A report from the front on the mood among Red Guard troops described their bitterness because “the enemy is pampered and protected, and prisoners offered conditions which the men at the front do not even dream of.” The men were saying that when they got back, “We will first of all clear up the rear of Mensheviks who play at revolution, and the more dangerous butchers.” On 4 March a meeting of Red Guard commanders in Helsinki demanded that White prisoners should get no better food and conditions than the Red Guard on active service, and there were press comments on the crowds of idle bourgeois haunting the streets and restaurants. The Labour Department commissioned a report on the problem that was forwarded to the Deputation for consideration on 9 March. The simple proposition was put forward

that the bourgeois would have less time to make mischief if they were put to work, and it recommended the government to “bring into force a duty to work, because of counter-revolutionary sabotage.” The idea was that anyone without a certificate of useful employment would be deprived of his ration card: “The plan is also humane, there is no trace of compulsion in it, everything is voluntary.” This was true in that anyone would be free not to work if he was prepared to do without food. The Deputation approved the idea in principle, but it looks as though the problems of implementation prevented it being put into effect.” (Upton, p. 383)

In conclusion, the Reds were novices in military matters. They had learned to work largely under peaceful reformist conditions and not to engage the capitalists in violent clashes.

The Red leadership had accepted the dogma of the 2nd International, that socialism could not be built in a less developed country like Finland, until the largest industrial powers like Germany became socialist. Therefore the Finnish Red leaders had never seriously prepared for revolution in Finland. When the situation began moving towards a revolutionary crisis, they tried to avoid it. However, as the masses moved further and further Left, so did many of the leaders. When the revolutionary situation was forced upon the Red leaders, most of them accepted the inevitablity of revolution and responsibility of leading it. They did not betray the workers.

However, they were not well equipped to lead. Due to their softness and incompetence, they often resorted to basically anarchistic tactics, although not because they were committed to anarchism, quite the contrary. Instead, it was merely because they lacked the necessary skills to do anything else. They lacked the skills to create solid revolutionary organization, discipline, leadership and decisiveness. Those are skills which they did not originally have, and need to be learned.

They were not real revolutionaries, had no experience of revolution, and did not understand revolutionary theory. The revolution would have to be their teacher. They would have to learn from the revolution and from the masses. They had also not carried out the necessary preparations for the revolution. That is why they seriously lacked weapons and did not have a military organization ready when civil war broke out, while the White Guard had been making decisive preparations, and was already armed and ready for a war.

Since the task had not been completed in advance, the Red Guard would have to be made into an army, during the civil war. The inexperience and theoretical backwardness of the leaders, made this a difficult and slow process, but it was being done. We shouldn’t be too hard on the leaders though, they did not ask to be in that situation. Many times they offered to resign, if better leaders could be found. But there were no other leaders. The working class vanguard does not fall from the sky, but is built and trained over the course of time, together with the masses.

Their task was difficult, but not impossible. The Reds had certain advantages, and their defeat was not inevitable. The whites could not sustain a long war, because they controlled no production centers and their troops were farmers who would try to abandon them en masse by the time Spring sowing came around. The crucial factor was Germany. The Whites were able to focus their forces, while the German invaders stabbed the Reds in the back. The only way for the Whites to achieve a quick victory was with Germany – though, if Finland had had a Bolshevik party they would probably have already taken power in the December 1917 General Strike, and the civil war would might never have happened.

We have now analyzed the Finnish struggle for independence, the conditions of the working class and the peasantry before the revolution, the 1917 December General Strike, the White war preparations and creation of the Red Guard. In the next installment we’ll finally begin analyzing the details of the Revolution and civil war.

SOURCES:

Holodkovski, Suomen Työväenvallankumous 1917-1918

Pertti Haapala, Kun yhteiskunta hajosi. Suomi 1914-1920

Aimo Klemettilä, Tampereen punakaarti ja sen jäsenistö

Suodenjoki ja Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa: Luokka, liike ja yhteiskunta 1880-1918 (Vasemmistolainen työväenliike Pirkanmaalla osa I)

Marja-Leena Salkola, Työväenkaartin synty ja kehitys punakaartiksi 1917-18 ennen kansalaissotaa

Pertti Haapala, Tehtaan valossa. Teollistuminen ja työväestön muodostuminen Tampereella 1820-1920, Historiallisia tutkimuksia 133

Punakaarti Rintamalla

Some basic information about Red troop formations https://www.jaegerplatoon.net/FORMATIONS1.htm

Koskinen, Veljiksi kaikki ihmiset tulkaa

Anthony Upton, The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918

Osmo Rinta-Tassi, Kansanvaltuuskunta punaisen Suomen hallituksena

V. Rasila, Kansalaissodan sosiaalinen tausta

Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-1918

Jussi Koivuniemi, Tehtaan pillin tahdissa. Nokian tehdasyhdyskunnan sosiaalinen järjestys 1870-1939

Nieminen Jaana, Kansallisesta jakautumisesta kunnalliseen eheytymiseen: vuoden 1918 sota Virroilla

Laitinen Erkki, Kurun historia 1867-1918, Vanhan Ruoveden historia III:5,1

Suomen luokkasota: Historiaa ja muistelmia

Vainio Marko, Yksi opisto – yksi liike. Tampereen teknillisen opiston suojeluskuntakomppania

Tampereen suojeluskunnan osana 1917-1918.

E. Raikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenaisyyssenaatti

O. Talas, Muistelmia

Yrjö Sirola as a fighter, teacher and person (1876-18. March 1936) by Elli Stenberg

Source: SKP – taistelujen tiellä
Published in 1945

(Translated by MLT from Finnish)

“Keep your eyes wide open” is a life motto which Yrjö Sirola followed closely in all periods and activities of his life and gave as an instruction to the entire Finnish working class in 1906. This motto is known by everyone who was fortunate to know Yrjö Sirola as a teacher or close colleague.

The history of Yrjö Sirola’s life in all its stages is inseparably tied to the history of the Finnish working class. Also during the times when he has been abroad – 1909-1913 in America and after 1918 in the Soviet Union – he has worked in particular on behalf of the Finnish working class and the whole Finnish nation.

It is natural and easy for the son of a worker to step into the workers’ movement and devote his whole life to it. On the other hand among those coming from the intelligentsia, there are only few who can honestly feel and say “I have no interests besides the interests of the working class”. Yrjö Sirola almost unnaturally modest, selfless and honest fighter in class struggle, earnestly felt that way despite coming from the intelligentsia, being the son of a priest.

Yrjö Sirola joined the workers’ movement on the eve of the 1905 general strike, when the Finnish working class was taking its first independent steps. Before that he had already read socialist literature and been to workers’ meetings, which he felt a passionate sympathy towards. In 1904 he became the editor of the People’s Paper in Tampere. He described his worldview of those times, saying that “it was a jumble of progressive secular bourgeois, henry-georgeist, tolstoyist, theosophical and utopian socialist waverings.”

During the 1905 general strike Yrjö Sirola was already a notable leader of the workers’ movement. With his inspiring speeches, which the older generation still thinks about today, he rallied the working masses behind him. His influence was the greatest during the two revolutionary periods 1905-06 and 1917-1918. He always gave a great importance for the international experience of the proletariat and through them tried to give a direction and purpose for the significant events in the Finnish workers’ movement. The experiences of the Russian Revolutions and the Paris Commune, were always topics of his energetic study and later the experiences of the Finnish working class as well.

Skill, sense of responsibility and hard work, caused Sirola to quickly rise to the most important positions in the workers’ movement. He was elected party secretary in the 1906 party congress in Oulu and to the parliament as a workers’ party representative in 1907. Documents of the parliament testify to his tenacity. Resolutely, he was e.g. in the frontlines of the struggle against tsarism, upholding the marxist view in the question of national struggle for independence. In fighting against the tsarist oppression of Finland he never mistook the Russian people to be the oppressors. On the contrary, he understood that the oppression was targeting them too. He felt the lives of the two nations were closely tied to each other and wanted collaboration in the joint struggle for emancipation. Privately he was in contact with Russian revolutionaries and took part among others, in the conference of the Russian bolsheviks in Tampere in 1905 and in Stockholm in 1906. In these events he was introduced to Lenin, which was mutually very significant. Since that time Sirola took many influences from Lenin.

On the eve of the Finnish revolution, in the autumn of 1917, Sirola was already one of the most principled and unshaking leaders of the workers’ movement. At that time too, he was a member of the parliament and Social-Democrat party leadership. He saw the requirements of the situation more clearly then many others and boldly defended his views against those who still doubted the necessity of revolution. During the revolution he was the minister of foreign affairs of the Finnish People’s Delegation [the red government~MLT], to which job he was suited due to his knowledge of foreign languages. In this position like in all others, he never lost firm contact with the masses, but spoke to the people often and had conversations with them.

After the defeat of the revolution, Yrjö Sirola took part in the serious self-criticism by the working class leaders who lead the revolution, concerning the reasons for its defeat and their old forms of activity. Together with Kuusinen and others of the working class’ finest, he began the arduous work for organizing a communist party in Finland. He was the chairman of the Finnish Communist Party central committee, and was tirelessly and eagerly at the frontlines of all the party’s battles.

Sirola also took part in the founding congress and other congresses of the Comintern and was a member in the Comintern’s control committee. In the Soviet Union he contributed significantly to the field of education. He worked as the People’s Comissar for education in Soviet-Karelia and as the headmaster of the Communist University of the National Minorities of the West in Leningrad oblast.

But Yrjö Sirola didn’t live solely for the working class. He also lived for his nation. In his writings and speeches he often emphasizes the joint action of the class-conscious proletarians, freedom loving peasantry and radical bourgeois. Already after the general strike he saw the necessity of this joint action and set it as the task for working class struggle.

Yrjö Sirola wasn’t only a politician and class-fighter, he was also a writer. His newspaper articles were often prosaic and immersive, still always retaining the appropriate factuality and not lapsing into mere pretty sounding words. In his youth he also wrote poetry and prose about contemporary events for periodicals. It is unlikely that he put together a unified collection, with the exception of “Vapautuksen tiellä” [on the path of liberation~MLT], which contains newspaper writings. Through his translations into Finnish, he has made some of the best works of proletarian poetry known to the Finnish working class.

He performed significant work as a literary critic, doing similar analysis of e.g. Järnefelt as Lenin did on Tolstoy. He has made the Kalevala [Finnish and Karelian national epic~MLT] more well known in Soviet-Karelia through his writings and presentations. There he supported in every possible way artistic literature in Finnish and Karelian languages and devoted a lot of time and energy to it. His personal knowledge of literature was amazingly broad.

Yrjö Sirola has had a great and influential career in teaching. All his work was dear to him, but it sometimes seemed that teaching was the dearest. He admitted it himself, albeit saying it was difficult to say what was closest to his heart.

Already in his youth while researching the events of the Paris Commune his attention was drawn to a statement by one member of the Commune: “Let us learn, let us gain education, it is due to our ignorance that we were defeated”. He never forgot these words. He acquired knowledge for himself, distributed it generously to others and guided the youth in their independent search for knowledge, here too maintaining close connection with everyday life. He considered organizing information to be as important as gathering it.

“It is not enough to know, one must also use: it is not enough to want, one must also do”. Sirola often reminded his students of these words of Goethe, himself being a prime example. Self-education and self-discipline were characteristic for him. He tried to cultivate these things in his students too because “without them, man really cannot do much that is particularly important in life.”

There are not many teachers like Sirola. Even the most difficult things became easy to understand through him. He knew how to motivate in study. He was full of warmth towards his students. Anyone could ask him for advice without delay, and give writings or presentations for him to examine. He was never so busy that he couldn’t advise, evaluate and correct errors. He knew how to give even the hardest criticism without depressing the student but instead inspiring them to try again. He was not only a teacher to his students, but also a comrade and fatherly friend.

As a teacher Sirola became an invaluable asset in raising working class forces. Marxist philosophy of society, dialectical materialism taught by him has given many workers who actively work in the workers’ movement a marxist-leninist clarity of thinking.

Yrjö Sirola also carried out constant scientific research in the area of working class history. He founded the workers’ archive in Helsinki. Under his leadership, an archive of the Finnish workers’ revolution was organized in Leningrad. He strove towards new achievements in all fields of human knowledge. In his work and his aims, he was forever young and tireless.

The inheritance left by Yrjö Sirola is large and valuable. It is immortal. To maintain this inheritance and comrade Sirola’s memory the writers of Soviet-Karelia have began a project for gathering and researching the writings left by Sirola. In the same purpose the Yrjö Sirola Foundation has recently been created in Helsinki, the mission of which is to aid in many ways the education, scientific, artistic and other endeavours of the democratic forces of our country.

There are great people who only live after their death. Yrjö Sirola lived and influenced much during his life, though due to circumstances of state politics he didn’t become as recognized as he deserved even in his homeland. Now both living and the dead step into view, from underground and from the other side of the border.[1] Yrjö Sirola is in the front ranks. His work lives in those he raised and will survive through generations. He is immortal, for “living in the best of the future, is a type of immortality.” (Brandes)[2]



Notes by MLT:

1. This refers to marxism becoming legal in Finland in 1944. This text is from 1945. For the first time, it became possible to talk about the ideas of communists, both living and dead. Communists returned to visibility from underground, or from “the other side of the border” from the Soviet Union.

2. This quote is by the Danish poet Georg Brandes from his poem that was published in Finnish under the title of “Hautakammio” (Tomb, crypt or literally ‘burial chamber’). Unfortunately I have not been able to find out what the original title is.