The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution

By February 1917, the people of Russia were starving due to food shortages, freezing due to coal shortages and exhausted from the war effort. The czar had led the country into another war of aggression where workers and peasants fought on the battlefield only to help realize the imperialist dreams nursed by the Russian bourgeoisie. Turning despair into hope, the workers in Petrogradtranslated their protests from general individual strikes into one individual general strike and brought the government to its knees. Soviets soon sprang up all over the country, nourished by the revolutionary fever, and linked up into a single, powerful “All-Russian Congress of Soviets.”Spontaneously created by the Russian workers and peasants during the 1905 Revolution, the soviets again consisted of elected representatives from factories and work places. But while the February revolution, which drove the czar from power, was executed by the Russian working class, the conviction that this was a bourgeois revolution persuaded them to transfer power to the capitalists who in turn formed a Provisional Government.

But great expectations were met with cruel disappointments. The Provisional Government failed to decree an eight-hour day despite demands by the nationally organized Soviet.

The Provisional Government did nothing to redistribute the land and condemned the peasants who nevertheless seized it. And it kept postponing elections for the promised Constituent Assembly. But perhaps worst of all the Provisional Government could not declare a peace: capitalists simply had too much at stake in the imperialist war effort.

Led by the Bolsheviks, the October Revolution, eight months later, swept aside the capitalists’ Provisional Government and ushered in a new era: the workers took control of the bourgeois state, smashed it and erected an entirely new structure in its place, a workers’ state. The Soviets, which had supreme authority, constituted the essence of the new state.

”Vanguard of the working people”

Lenin’s description underlines the workers’ state’s revolutionary departure from any capitalist society:

. . . Soviet power is a new type of state without a bureaucracy, without police, without a regular army, a state in which bourgeois democracy has been replaced with a new democracy, a democracy which brings to fore the vanguard of the working people, gives them legislative and executive authority, makes them responsible for military defense and creates state machinery that can re-educate the masses.

Soviet representatives could be recalled at any time and the ministers of the new government, called “commissars” to signal a new type of government official, were paid the equivalent of a skilled worker’s salary with small additional increments for each of their children.

Immediately this new government abolished all private ownership of the land without compensation. Landowners’ estates and those of the Crown and Church were transferred to the local Soviets for equal distribution among the peasants. The Bolsheviks ideally would have favored the creation of large agricultural collectives in order to increase productivity but realized that such a proposal would have directly collided with the aspirations of millions of poor peasants.

Thus Lenin argued: “We as a democratic government, cannot evade the decision of the rank and file of the people, even if we do not agree with it. In the fire of life, by applying it in practice, by carrying it out on the spot, the peasants themselves will come to understand what is right . . .”

Hence, of the confiscated land 86 percent went to the peasants and only 3 percent to agricultural collectives.

Workers’ control was immediately implemented. Here workers had access to all accounting books. No decisions could be made by the owners without the approval of the workers. This implied that while workers neither owned nor managed a business (management frequently required an expertise that workers had yet to master) they nevertheless had control in the form of veto power over all decisions, ranging from the hiring and firing of workers to an owner’s attempt to decapitalize. Contemporary exercises in “co-determination” in Europe, for example, have nothing in common with workers’ control. Co-determination means that workers’ “participate” in decisions without any ultimate control whatsoever.

”All-embracing workers’ control”

During the first few months only a few hundred businesses were nationalized, often in response to provocations by an owner who was determined to decapitalize. Or sometimes, in spite of a more cautious Bolshevik policy, workers simply took over a factory or business so that it too was added to the list of nationalizations. Some have consequently argued that the Soviet Union did not become a workers’ state until June 1918 when nationalizations occurred on a systematic and extensive basis. But Lenin insisted that “the important thing will not be even the confiscation of the capitalists’ property, but the country-wide, all embracing workers’ control over the capitalists and their supporters. Confiscation along leads nowhere, as it does not contain the element of organization, or accounting for proper distribution.”

Four days after the revolution the eight-hour day was decreed and no children under fourteen were allowed to work. Soon afterwards social insurance against unemployment and sickness was established and the equality of women was decreed. Divorce was simplified and civil marriages were legalized.

The old court system, which survived the February Revolution, was immediately discarded and replaced by workers and peasants courts. Later Lenin commented: ”Here our task was easier; we did not have to create a new apparatus, because anybody can act as a judge basing himself on the revolutionary sense of justice of the working classes.”

The October Revolution dissolved the czar’s entire army at once and the Red Army marched in to replace it with the following objective stipulated at its inception:

With the transfer of power to the toiling and exploited classes, there has risen the necessity to create a new army which shall be the bulwark of Soviet power . . . and will serve as a support for the coming socialist revolutions in Europe.

This was a revolutionary army built on a revolutionary stricture: officer ranks were abolished and replaced simply by a commanding staff elected by the soldiers’ themselves.

The essay above was written by Ann Robertson. It first appeared in the May 1985 issue of Socialist Action newspaper. It is also available in the Socialist Action/Walnut Publishing pamphlet “Marxism’s Lessons for Today”.