ON THE evening of November 7 1917 a small group of frightened men — ministers of Russia’s Provisional Government — waited in the imperial throne room of the Winter Palace.
At 3am, they were taken into custody. A few hours later they were released.
By then, Russia’s socialist revolution had taken place. Over previous days, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies had secured control of most of the city. Across Russia’s towns and cities, committees of workers and soldiers were similarly in possession.
There were only isolated attempts at resistance, mainly by remnants of the tsarist officer corps.
Russia’s socialist revolution was almost entirely peaceful and was so because the old order had lost all support. It was also a democratic revolution, restoring power to the only legitimate democratic bodies in Russia at the time, the workers’ committees — Soviets — elected during the earlier February revolution.
This is the real history of the October Revolution. Most accounts circulating today would claim the opposite — that it was a bloody coup carried out by a minority of Bolshevik extremists and for that reason only sustained by a reign of terror.
Not so. The October Revolution was a mass revolution carried through by the Russian working class and its allies among the working peasantry.
To understand why this extraordinary event was possible, some historical background is needed on the nature of Russian capitalism, Russia’s revolutionary traditions and on what divided its two main left parties, the Mensheviks and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Lenin described Russia as the “weakest link” in the chain of imperialism, though its imperialism was highly aggressive. Over the previous half century its conquests in the Caucasus, Siberia, Central Asia, the Far East and Manchuria had seen the seizure of more territory than any of its rivals. Yet this aggression was a product of weakness.
Russia’s capitalist development was late and dependent. It relied on capital from France, Britain and the United States and these investors sought super-profits from the raw materials of the Russian empire and its cheap labour.
Overall, 33 per cent of the capital for Russia’s industrialisation came from France, Britain and the US. In coal, foreign ownership was 74 per cent, in iron and steel 54 per cent and in chemicals 50 per cent and oil 45 per cent.
Russia’s capitalists were therefore dependent, and knew they were dependent, on the military machine of the tsarist autocracy, not just for their profits but also for their own protection in face of Russia’s insurgent population.
The country’s revolutionary traditions were profound and mass-based. The centuries’ long struggle against serfdom eventually secured its abolition in 1861, only to precipitate the rural population into an even more lethal form of financial servitude.
They were compelled to compensate their former owners and sell the food, and increasingly the land, that they needed for subsistence. The size of holdings diminished and poverty increased.
As in Ireland, this produced resistance — strengthened in Russia’s case by continuing traditions of communal organisation. Tens of thousands of local risings occurred in the two decades before 1914 and this tradition of resistance was taken into the towns and cities by the hundreds of thousands now displaced from the countryside.
By 1914, Russia had just short of four million industrial workers, concentrated in the two great capital cities of Petersburg and Moscow. They worked in giant factories, the biggest in the world, and lived within striking distance of the main seats of imperial power.
The big question, the one that divided the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, was how to lead this movement.
Like their right-wing colleagues in western Europe, the Mensheviks argued that capitalism had to fully mature before any advance into socialism and that the task of socialists meantime was to support the bourgeoisie in developing liberal parliamentary institutions and, for themselves, to strengthen labour movement organisation.
Any revolutionary challenge was out of the question. But Lenin disagreed. Whatever might be the case in western Europe, this was not so in Russia. Its capitalist class was dependent on the tsarist autocracy for markets, for external expansion and simply to defend it against an insurgent population.
The 1905 Revolution had already demonstrated that Russia’s new bourgeoisie was incapable of pushing forward any type of democratic transformation that could change the balance of class forces.
In Russia, said Lenin, it was the working class that had to lead the challenge to the tsarist autocracy and its empire. And it had to do so in alliance with the insurgent peasantry and Russia’s subject peoples and hence champion the right to national self-determination.
By contrast, the Mensheviks did not support self-determination and saw Russia’s territorial expansion as essential for its capitalist development.
Predictably, when war came in 1914 the Mensheviks, like right-wing social democrats elsewhere, supported it.
The Bolsheviks opposed it.
By February 1917, millions had died at the front and there was near starvation in the cities. The trigger for the first February revolution was a march of women factory workers in Petrograd demanding bread. That nice family man Nicholas II ordered the army to clear the streets and, as was his wont, congratulated his troops on the resulting massacre.
But the garrison troops in Petrograd were having none of it. They mutinied and joined the workers, while the tsar’s own high command forced him to abdicate.
The response of workers was to recreate the Workers’ Committees, or Soviets, that had been a feature of the 1905 Revolution. Every workplace elected delegates, with the Petrograd Soviet numbering thousands of mandated members. These Soviets represented direct democracy, the only type that Russia possessed.
It was at this point that crucial differences arose between the Bolsheviks and the Menshevik Social Democrats and their Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) allies, the party representing the better-off peasants.
The Mensheviks wanted to continue the war. Together with the SRs, they had majority support in most Soviets, above all in Petrograd and used their majority to return governmental powers to the old tsarist war cabinet, the ministers to whom Nicholas II had handed power. It was these men who became the Provisional Government, with the later addition of a couple of Menshevik and SR ministers including Alexander Kerensky.
The consequences soon demonstrated the correctness of Lenin’s analysis. Far from conceding democratic rights, this new “liberal” government, in its drive to mobilise resources for the war, moved quickly to the right.
In July, mass demonstrations erupted in Petrograd demanding peace and economic justice. Demonstrators were shot down and remaining civil liberties suspended.
Under its new leader Kerensky, the Provisional Government then sought to transform its political base. It gave control of war policy to demagogic tsarist general Lavr Kornilov and, to the anger of both workers and peasants, convened an assembly of landlords and industrialists.
This proved the turning point. Support for the Mensheviks in the Soviets collapsed and the SRs split. By August-September, the Bolsheviks and their left SR allies had majorities in almost all the Soviets across Russia.
The Bolshevik demand was now for all power to the Soviets, the return of power to Russia’s only democratic institutions.
Their slogan Peace, Bread and Land sought to unite Russia’s working masses in the cities and in the countryside for a new order, one in which working people themselves could take control.
On November 7, they did. John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World documents the bewildering sense of freedom — together with the understanding by ordinary people that the world had totally changed and they themselves were changing it.
For the world outside, the news of a Russian workers’ revolution transformed expectations of what was possible. In Austria and Germany, anti-war strikes and mutinies erupted through December and January 1918.
In Britain, the anti-war movement was massively strengthened. Strikes swept through the munitions industries as anti-war shop stewards won support from their fellow workers. Mass arrests, including that of Scottish revolutionary socialist John Maclean, followed.
“I am not here,” he told the court, “as the accused. I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”
The lesson was not lost on those he accused. From November 1917, the agents of Britain and France in Russia spent small fortunes rallying the remnants of the tsarist forces.
Within three months, still in the midst of the first world war, British troops had landed in Russia followed by those from France, the United States, Romania and Japan.
Winston Churchill, the British War Minister, declared it his intention to “strangle Bolshevism at birth.”
In the ensuing war, lasting till 1920, hundreds of thousands did die. By a neat trick of omission, one leading British academic, in a short history recently published by Oxford University Press, attributes all these deaths to the Bolshevik “reign of terror.”
No reference whatsoever is made to the troops, funds and munitions sent by his own country to sustain the proto-fascist tsarist forces murdering their way across Russia.
This war did exact a terrible toll on the revolution and the Russian working class. But the revolution survived, transforming the balance of world forces for two generations, helping to lift the yoke of colonialism from the majority of the world’s people and, in the second world war, ensuring the defeat of fascism.
John Foster is international secretary of the Communist Party.