This spring marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution – an event that shocked the entire world and changed it forever. Today, as turmoil and chaos, the threat of war, revolution and counter-revolution sweep across the planet, we should not just commemorate this great revolution on its 100th anniversary; we should learn from it.
Russian Tsar Overthrown
In February of 1917, Russian workers and peasants rose up and overthrew the Russian tsar. Two months later, the country was still in turmoil as a layer of liberals had formed a “provisional government” – one bound and determined to keep Russia in WW I, to keep the land owners owning the land and the property owners (capitalists) as owners of the factories. It was into this chaos that Lenin returned from abroad in April.
He was greeted by his party, the “Bolsheviks”, with bouquets and flowery speeches. He was told that the revolution had more or less been completed. In other words, now that the tsar was gone, everybody must let things remain the same.
Lenin’s Revolutionary Perspective
“Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers,” Lenin is reported to have responded, “I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army…. The hour is not far when at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters…. The Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the world-wide socialist revolution!”
Lenin went from this public speech to meet with the leaders of his party. “I was expecting they would take us directly from the (train) station to Peter and Paul (prison),” he is reported to have said to his party comrades. “We are far from that, it seems. But let us not give up hope that it will happen, that we shall not escape it…. We don’t need any parliamentary republic. We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the Soviet (council) of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies.”
These comments of Lenin’s shocked the leadership of the party he’d been so central to building. Then, a few days later, he followed this up.
Lenin’s April Theses: Power to the Soviets
On April 4, the Bolsheviks held a congress to which Lenin submitted his April Theses. In it, he explained that the capitalist class had aligned itself with the old feudal aristocracy and as such was incapable of solving the “land question”, meaning redistribution of the land to the peasantry. As far as the war, Lenin explained that Russian capitalism was dominated by French and British capitalism and was, therefore, incapable of ending Russia’s involvement in that imperialist war.
“The country is passing from the first stage of the revolution… to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants,” he said. This could only be accomplished through the “soviets” – the councils of representatives of workers, poor peasants and soldiers. He also called for “no support for the Provisional Government”.
Soviets a “New Form of State”
Lenin explained what these workers’ councils represented. “They constitute a new form… a new type of state… (that rises in) revolutionary epochs (my emphasis).” Central to this new form of state – in fact what was its essence – is that it constitutes “a state replacing the standing army and the police by a direct arming of the people itself.” In other words, the workers’ councils replace the essence of the capitalist state, which is the “special armed bodies of men (and women nowadays)”.
To put matters concretely: The new Provisional Government, while it may have had control over the police, did not have complete control over the soldiers. In fact, there were instances in which the soldiers actively stopped the police. The rank and file soldiers tended to be more loyal to, tended to obey more, the orders of the local councils than they did the Provisional Government.
Lenin also explained the danger of a counter revolution and a reversion to a monarchy, “since all the machinery of repression is left intact: army, police, bureaucracy.”
“Revolution” Within the Bolsheviks
All of this flew in the face of the position of the Bolsheviks’ leadership, which up until that point had been calling for critical support for the (capitalist) provisional government. In part that was because the Bolsheviks had not completely thought through the situation in Russia – the weakness of the capitalist class, its links with both the feudal aristocracy as well as with foreign imperialists. They tended to think that the Russian Revolution would be like other revolutions in a previous period in Europe – ones led by the capitalist class against the feudal aristocracy; revolutions which established capitalism and liberal democracy. With this explanation (above), Lenin explained why this could not happen.
One thing that Lenin made clear: In the last analysis, the issue boiled down to one of power; in particular power to repress the opposing class. The capitalists relied on the police and the soldiers to be able to do so. As long as they could control both, their hold on power was more or less secure. While the capitalists control over the police remained secure, the police could not stand up to the army, and the control over the soldiers was passing from the capitalist class to the working class. That was and is the essence of “dual power” – who controls the soldiers. (Who determines other questions like distribution of the land, how and at what price food is distributed, etc, are also essential. But whichever class controls the soldiers also ultimately has the power to decide these other questions.)
A Vital Lesson for Today: Syria
The issue of the workers councils – or soviets – is not just of abstract historical interest.
Take the most recent revolutionary upsurge – the Arab Spring: It seems that revolution went the furthest in Syria. There, Local (revolutionary) Coordinating Committees (LCC’s) were formed throughout the country. These committees not only coordinated the revolution (as did the soviets in Russia); they also started to take on the task of running society. An article in Harper’s magazine describes meetings of some LCC’s. Among other things, they set food prices and ruled on land disputes. “We have to give to each as he needs,” said one leader of an LCC. In another case, where there was a dispute, an LCC leader emphasized “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that!”
In the weeks that followed, thousands of soldiers rebelled against the Assad regime and came over to the side of the revolution. They protected the protesters from the attacks of Assad’s police and his thugs. However, it seems one thing that did not happen on a general scale was that the rank and file soldiers were not in general brought into the LCC’s; in other words, they were not integrated into the revolution. Instead, there was a layer of lower and mid and even a few upper layer officers who came along with the rank and file soldiers. These were officers who’d served Assad loyally for years and came over it seems in order to keep their control over their troops. From what we can tell, because the rank and file soldiers weren’t integrated into the LCC’s, this layer of officers was able to keep control over the soldiers, instead of the soldiers being part of and controlled by the revolution itself. That is a huge difference with what happened 100 years ago in Russia. And the result was that as the movement became increasingly militarized, the revolutionary movement started to lose control.
More Articles Coming
In the coming months we will have further articles marking key events of the Russian Revolution, leading up to the October revolution itself, in which the working class – led by the Bolsheviks – seized power through the workers councils or Soviets. What happened afterwards, how the revolution became bureaucratized, what were the conditions that led to that, and also what possible mistakes the Bolshevik leadership made and why – this will also be discussed. But in the meanwhile, this revolution is so full of lessons for the present that its 100th anniversary makes it deserving of serious study and discussion. We hope that this short article will help contribute to that process.