On the Centenary of Our Revolution Against the Russian Empire

Today is the centenary of the Bolsheviks taking power.  We asked Giorgio Riva from Payday Men’s Network to write from memory some idea of what happened 100 years ago today.  (He is in Venice for his uncle’s funeral, and his books are not with him.) The attack on that revolution has been almost unanimous in the media, and we needed an antidote of truth to fortify ourselves against it. Stalin’s brutal counter revolution has been assumed to be the revolution itself though there is a hint in one Guardian editorial that more was involved: “The Russian Revolution was an inspiration because it told the world that things do not have to stay as they are – in society, in politics, in human relations and in the arts.”  It is referring to the flowering of creativity in every department of human endeavour including of course the arts.  This is despite the fact that once they took power, the Soviet workers and peasants had to defeat the massed armies and wealth of the imperialist powers which surrounded the new Soviet Union.

Confusing the counter revolution with the revolution is exactly what happened in Tanzania after socialist Ruvuma and Nyerere were defeated by the corrupt government: Villagisation, a form of what in Stalin’s Soviet Union was called collectivization, was imposed. Millions starved in the Soviet Union, thousands in Tanzania.  It was finally abandoned. But when you raise the socialism of Ruvuma they attack it as the villagisation imposed from above, distorting and hiding what the grassroots were succeeding in building and spreading.  The aim is always the same: to convince us that we can’t win.

Here is what Giorgio wrote yesterday from memory:

“7 November 1917 (25 October according to the Gregorian calendar adopted by the tsars), the Bolsheviks attack the Winter Palace in Petrograd and seize power.

Immediately Lenin, whistle blower that he was, makes public all the secret treaties among both the Allies (UK, France and Russia) and the Central Empires (Germany and Austria).  Either side had drawn up plans to carve up Europe and the colonies after their victory and Lenin revealed this to the international movement.

Lenin called for all the power to go to the soviets (workers, peasants and soldiers councils) with the slogan Bread, immediate Peace and Land to the peasants.

The attack on the Winter Palace was practically bloodless, not so the beginning of the Revolution (February-March 1917) when 1,300 people were killed.  The February Revolution was started by women who came out demonstrating from factories and kitchens.  The factory workers joined them bypassing the parties (including the Bolsheviks) which had told them not to go on strike [see Trotsky’s description below].

The counterrevolution started immediately to try to put the tsar back on the throne.  In August 1917 general Kornilov threatened to march on Petrograd, but his army melted away.  But August was important because it allowed the Bolsheviks to regroup after the July upheaval, defeated by the provisional (vaguely leftist) government, which wanted a parliament but also wanted to continue the war, when soldiers were deserting in their hundreds of thousands.

After the Bolsheviks seized power on 7 November, the “Whites” led by tsarist generals like Yudenitch, Kolchak, Denikin and Wrangel, immediately started a counterrevolution, with armies attacking from all cardinal points.  The Russian counterrevolution was supported financially and directly militarily by the Allies (UK, France, US and Japan) –with troups landing in Arcangel, Murmansk, Odessa and Vladivostok.

The Allies wanted to establish a cordon sanitaire to prevent Russian communism from spreading to Germany. They were defeated by 1921, but managed to prevent Germany being “infected” by communism, mainly because the German Revolution was defeated three times (1919, when Rosa Luxemburg was killed by the social democrats, in 1921 and finally in 1923).

But the Bolsheviks – now Communist Party – paid a heavy price during the civil war.  The best cadres went to fight in the most dangerous zones and many of those who had led the revolution were killed or died as a result of deprivation.  Two names spring to mind: Jakov Sverdlov, strong ally of Lenin in the Party, who died of Spanish flu (or tifus) in 1919 and John Reed, US journalist and activist, author of Ten Days Which Shook the World, who died of tifus in 1920.  They were both 33.

So by 1921 the Party was deprived of the most experienced and committed cadres, and Stalin had an easier job to take over the Party, after Lenin died in January 1924 at the age 53 – a catastrophe for the international movement.”

The revolution began in February (in our calendar March 8, and the working class finally seized power in October (our November 7).  It was begun by women.  Here is what Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution(published 1932-3) has to say. Please note the description “A mass of women, not all of them workers…” What he means is that the women from the textile factories were joined by the housewives and probably the prostitutes, and those too old to be employed, but not to struggle.

“The 23rd of February was International Woman’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough-committee, all workers – was opposing strikes. The temper of the masses, according to Kayurov, one of the leaders in the workers’ district, was very tense; any strike would threaten to run into an open fight. But since the committee thought the time unripe for militant action – the party not strong enough and the workers having too few contacts with the soldiers – they decided not to call for strikes but to prepare for revolutionary action at some indefinite time in the future. Such was the course followed by the committee on the eve of the 23rd of February, and everyone seemed to accept it. On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support. “With reluctance,” writes Kayurov, “the Bolsheviks agreed to this, and they were followed by the workers – Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead.” Such was Kayurov’s decision, and the Vyborg committee had to agree to it. “The idea of going into to the streets had long been ripening among the workers; only at that moment nobody imagined where it would lead.” Let us keep in mind this testimony of a participant, important for understanding the mechanics of the events. . . .

Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives. The overgrown breadlines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings, encounters with the police. The movement began in the Vyborg district with its large industrial establishments; thence it crossed over to the Petersburg side. There were no strikes or demonstrations elsewhere, according to the testimony of the secret police. On that day detachments of troops were called in to assist the police – evidently not many of them – but there were no encounters with them. A mass of women, not all of them workers, (our emphasis) flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Woman’s Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had guessed even by nightfall.

On the following day the movement not only fails to diminish but doubles. About one-half of the industrial workers of Petrograd are on strike on the 24th of February. . . . “

Two points must be added. The first is that the revolution was of the Russian empire travelling across all the nations the Tsar had subjugated.  It was an anti-imperialist revolution.  Secondly, peasants seized land while workers seized factories in a massive movement which no party thought of or controlled.  It must have been joyous and full of love.  Marx called revolution the “carnival of the masses”.