Revolution revisited: October 1917

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Bolshevik poster
The Bolshevik' by Boris Kustodiev, 1920. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As the centennial of the Russian Revolution approaches, Vladimir Unkovski-Korica looks at the events of the October Revolution


This year will see the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. Shortly after the vote to disband the Provisional Government, set up in the aftermath of the collapse of the tsarist autocracy in the February Revolution, the new Soviet government passed decrees on worker control of industry, land to the peasants, peace without annexations and self-determination of peoples.

This was the zenith of a revolutionary process which had seen ‘the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny’, in the words of the revolution’s great protagonist and historian, Leon Trotsky. Russia’s great revolutionary year had begun with a demonstration for bread on International Women’s Day.

The demonstrations spread quickly to workers across the capital. When troops were ordered to disband the crowds, some refused. Quickly, the mutiny spread to other units, angry over the First World War and the bad treatment of soldiers in the Russian army.

Within a week, the February Revolution had toppled the Tsar. Workers and soldiers who had mutinied in the capital set up organs of direct democracy, soviets. These bodies were directly elected from workplaces and military units. From the ground up, a new form of power rose in the capital and was concentrated in the Petrograd Soviet.

Like most revolutions, the February Revolution was not a planned revolution. It was a spontaneous outburst of anger and guided by general desires for change from different sections of Russian society. Many liberals and capitalists ended up persuading the Tsar to abdicate and setting up a new temporary government until elections could be held.

This Provisional Government shared power with the Petrograd Soviet from the early days of the revolution. Many representatives of the workers and soldiers were moderate socialists who had not been driven underground like the anti-war Bolsheviks. They sought only control of the Provisional Government’s actions because they feared that Russia’s generals would not welcome a socialist government and would crush the revolution. More than that, they feared the collapse of the Russian army against the German and Austrian armies would end the new republic.

Their choice of setting up and maintaining their pact with the Provisional Government throughout 1917 proved fatal to them. The Provisional Government proved to be an unworkable compromise. It promised land reform but after an election, which compromised its ability to get food to the cities, as tensions rose in the countryside. It promised a fair deal for workers but faced resistance from the class of employers. Its fatal flaw was its commitment to the war. The capitalist sections wanted an aggressive war with annexations while the moderate socialists wanted just a defensive war.

But prosecution of the war demanded sacrifices from the population that was unwilling and unable to tighten belts and risk lives any further. The only party that consistently opposed the Provisional Government’s policies was the Bolshevik Party. It alone was able to tie all the various grievances to the question of the war and the class compromise that always served the interests of the rapacious capitalists above all else.

Its membership therefore increased from 10,000 in February to 250,000 in October. But the party had not come from nowhere. Its strength came partly from its pre-war roots in the working class, especially skilled metal workers. The Bolsheviks had won most working class votes in the last pre-war elections. They won the insurance council elections of 1913-14. They were equally successful in the trade union leadership elections of 1913: by summer 1914 they controlled over 14 of the 18 trade union executives in Petrograd and 10 out of 13 in Moscow.

Maintaining its principles opposition to war and explaining its roots in the class character of the ‘dual power’ set up in February 1917 allowed the Bolshevik Party to convince anew both sections of the working class that supported it but also soldiers and new workers. The Bolsheviks lambasted the Provisional Government’s promise in April 1917 that it would maintain the Tsar’s secret treaties with allies in the Entente. They also vehemently opposed a new and disastrous offensive in June 1917. By July, they could count on the majority of workers and soldiers in the capital.

But they did not wish to take power until they won a majority elsewhere. This momentarily put them at odds with their own base in the July Days when workers and soldiers sought to take power themselves. The Soviet leaders managed to put down the uprising and drove the Bolsheviks underground. They then proceeded to try to disarm the workers and enforce greater discipline in the army, further losing support. By September, the capitalists and army high command were so confident they felt they could try a coup against the embattled Soviet leadership.

The latter felt so weak they rallied the Bolsheviks to their support. The latter helped defeat the coup led by General Kornilov and quickly afterwards gained a majority at only the second countrywide soviet elections. They felt they now had the legitimacy to push out the wobbly Provisional Government and take power in the name of soviet democracy. October saw the greatest anti-capitalist uprising in history as ordinary people overthrew the state and started to run society themselves.

From that moment, socialism has been a demand across the globe. The debate about these events has shaped every struggle for social change. This is why, one hundred years on from the February Revolution, Counterfire will host a special conference on 25 February 2017 to discuss this history and its meaning for 21st century socialism. Come join us. Join the revolution.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica