frontline vol. 2 issue 3.

The Spectre of 1917

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution; an event which went a long way in shaping the 20th century in much the same way that the French Revolution shaped the 19th. That there appears to be nothing planned in Russia to mark the revolution shows a degree of nervousness by the government and the new Russian elite; a nervousness drawn from a fear that history just might repeat itself. In this article Bill Bonnar looks at the causes and historical impact of 1917.
There are two initial things to say about the Russian Revolution. When we talk of the anniversary we tend to refer to that event of October 1917 when the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd and Lenin's address the next day to the Petrograd Soviet to make his famous announcement; "we will now proceed to construct the socialist order". In fact, the Revolution was really a serious of interconnected events which began with the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 and culminated in the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922.

Secondly; the revolution was based on a number of assumptions all of which proved to be erroneous leaving the revolution to engage in a grim struggle for survival before finally triumphing with the founding of the USSR five years later. What were these assumptions?


First, that the revolution would bring an end to the war. The First World War was a disaster for Russia with millions dieing and the army suffering catastrophic defeats. The desire by the general population to get out of the war was one of the driving forces behind the revolution. One of its great achievements was the decision by the Bolsheviks to unilaterally pull Russia out of the imperialist war; the key factor in bringing that war to an end. However, no sooner had the First World War ended when Russia was plunged into a bloody three year civil war against counter-revolutionary forces bolstered by the intervention of no less than fourteen countries determined, in the words of Winston Churchill, "to strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle". For the Bolsheviks it meant that the principle aim of the revolution after 1918 was to win the civil war, defeat the foreign invaders and simply survive.

The second factor which fuelled the desire for revolution was the pitiful economic situation Russia found itself in the period immediately before the revolution. As it was the great majority of Russian workers lived in poverty but this was greatly exacerbated by a general economic crisis brought about by the war. The Bolsheviks believed that Russia needed a second revolution in order to halt the alarming economic decline. In fact, after the Bolsheviks took power, the economic crisis became worse resulting in almost total economic collapse.

Thirdly, the Bolsheviks believed that following the revolution a new form of democracy would emerge in Russia. This would be based on soviets (workers councils) which would run the country and give the revolution its democratic foundation as outlined in Lenin's pamphlet State and Revolution. In fact, under the combined pressure of economic collapse and civil war this experiment quickly disappeared with the need for the Bolsheviks to stay in power at any cost. What emerged was a Bolshevik dictatorship, necessary at the time, but with severe consequences for the future. The model of authoritarian one party rule was to remain long after the reasons for it ended.

Fourthly, the Bolsheviks greatest fear was the revolution would be isolated and would not survive the inevitable backlash from international capitalism. They banked everything on the idea that the Russian Revolution would be a catalyst for revolution throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, and that these revolutions would come to their rescue and guarantee survival. While there did occur a revolutionary movement which swept through Europe in the months that followed, these were defeated one by one leaving the Russian Revolution isolated in the manner the Bolsheviks most dreaded.

With the initial optimism shattered by foreign invasion, civil war, economic collapse and the failure of the revolution abroad, all that was left for the Bolsheviks was a grim struggle for survival and the belief that the new society would be built in the future. That it did survive against such overwhelming odds was perhaps its greatest triumph.


However,to go back to the start. In February 1917 the Tsar was overthrown ending nearly 600 years of monarchy and overnight turning Russia into a republic. The crisis had been brewing for months. A succession of military disasters in the war saw the day by day disintegration of the Russian army with troops returning home in their thousands armed and angry. At the same time there were growing strikes and demonstrations at home protesting at the desperate economic situation and against the war, all directed at the Tsarist government. It came to a head in Petrograd when after several days of protests troops refused to open fire on demonstrators. The mutiny spread to Moscow the next day with the army lining up to support the demonstrators against the regime. The Tsar's position became untenable and he was forced to resign. A Provisional Revolutionary Government was elected but it quickly became clear that its main aim was to continue with the war and would do little to alleviate the economic crisis. At the same time soviets (workers councils) began to emerge in cities and towns, in factories and in the army and navy culminating in the establishment of the All-Russia Congress of Workers and Soldiers in June. By this time it was clear that there were two separate and opposing centres of power in Russia. The Provisional Revolutionary Government, which despite its name, had continued with the economic and military strategy of the previous Tsarist government and the Soviets demanding radical economic measures, an end to war, land reform and increasingly led by the Bolshevik Party.

Things came to a head on the 3rd and 4th July when Petrograd was brought to a standstill by a wave of street battles and strikes with protesters demanding that the Soviets overthrow the government and take power. This movement was halted by the government who banned the Bolshevik Party and formed a new provisional government headed by Kerensky. It was to prove only a temporary setback. In August the Tsarist General Kornilov marched on the capital ostensibly to restore order in support of the government. However, to his dismay, Kerensky realised that Kornilov was instead launching a coup and had to appeal to the Petrograd Soviet to organise the defence of the capital. In agreeing to this the Soviet forced Kerensky to agree to General Order No. One by which any government order had first be signed by the Chairperson of the Petrograd Soviet, Leon Trotsky; in effect ceding power to the Soviet. This was the revolution. A mutiny in the army ensured that Kornilov's forces never reached the capital.

Soviet Russia

In September the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Soviet which was now in power in the Petrograd. In October the Bolsheviks finally overthrow the Provisional Government with a symbolic and theatrical storming of the Winter Palace and the next day at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets declared the Socialist Republic. By November the Bolsheviks had control of Moscow and other large cities and in January 1918 re-enforced their hold on power by abolishing the Constituent Assembly.

In February 1918 Germany launched a new invasion of Russia which by this time has no functioning army while a revolt by Czech legions in the country plunged Russia into a bloody civil war between Red and White forces. By the spring of 1919 with the counter-revolutionary forces attacking the Bolsheviks from all directions supported by armed intervention by international capitalism, all seemed lost. However, by November 1920 the counter-revolution and foreign invasion had been largely defeated by the Red Army and on January 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics comes into being; the final triumph of the revolution.


There has been much debate among the Left over the years as to what extent these events shaped the future of the Soviet Union. For its entire history, the country had what could best be described as an authoritarian model of socialism. When did this form emerge? Some would have it that this was primarily a product of the rise of Stalin to the position of unchallengeable leader in the mid to late 1920's. However, this view is difficult to sustain. As has been stated earlier Russia was ruled by a ruthless Bolshevik dictatorship as early as 1918 in response to the many pressures on the revolution. In this they were absolutely correct given the need for the revolution to survive. History since then has been littered with the wreckage of left wing governments who failed to deal effectively with counter revolution. It would have been naive to assume that after the Soviet Union was founded it would miraculously transform itself into a new higher form of democracy. Or to put it another way. If Stalin had accidentally died in the early years of the revolution and another leader emerged; the Soviet Union would still have been governed by a left-wing dictatorship whose priority was survival at any price. It might not have had Stalin's particular mark but an authoritarian regime it certainly would have been.

Such a government would also have had to embark on the programme of 'forced industrialisation' launched in 1927. Fully ten years after the revolution very little economic progress had actually been made. In fact the country's economic level was less than at had been in 1914 and its industrial base was less than that of a country like Belgium. This was simply not sustainable in the long term. The period 1927 to 1937 was characterised by two factors; unimaginable economic growth and equally unimaginable political repression. That these two factors are connected is self-evident although the extent of their inter-connection is out-with the scope of this article. The point is that the authoritarian nature of the post-revolutionary soviet government was shaped by objective political and economic conditions and not the vagaries of any particular political leader. In saying that; having a psychopath like Stalin in charge didn't exactly help matters.


The time for the Soviet Union to have made the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic model of socialism was in the post-Stalin period from the late 1950's. The country had survived and rebuilt after the devastation of the Second World War. It had the largest economy in Europe and the second largest in the world. Internationally the country was now a super-power to rival the United States while domestically its government was unchallenged. It was also the start of a 25 year period of economic growth, rising living standards and for the first time since 1914 social stability. The objective conditions now existed for democratic reform begun tentatively under Khrushchev. However, when Brezhnev came to power in 1964 a conservative reaction set in which ossified the country's political structures while society and the rest of the world moved on. It was this failure to reform that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years later.


Ninety year on what is the legacy of the revolution? The first was a lesson on how unstable the capitalist system was and is. Imagine a meeting of the local branch of the Bolshevik Party in downtown Petrograd in October 1916.* On the agenda under paper sales, finance and membership is an item on future perspectives with a lead off from Comrade Alanivitch McCombivich in which he stated that by this time next year the Tsar would be overthrown, a Republic declared, the army in the western front would collapse and return home demanding revolution. They would merge with a new radical mass movement called the Soviets. The Bolshevik Party would rise from a small force on the margins of politics to become the main political force in the country and in exactly 12 months time would overthrow the government in a socialist revolution. One can imagine the stunned response of those at the meeting yet this in effect is what happened. Capitalism then and now can appear solid and unchallengeable but is an inherently unstable entity always liable for economic and political crisis something made more so in the era of globalisation. *Of course the Bolshevik Party was banned in 1916 so this meeting might not actually have taken place.

Second, the revolution completely transformed a significant part of the planet for most of the 20th century. I was in Moscow in 1977 around the time of the 60th anniversary of the revolution with all sorts of exhibitions and displays showing how things had changed for the better in just two generations. Leaving aside the propagandist nature of much of this and a rather one sided view of soviet history ( no mention of purges, show trials, labour camps) much of what was said was inherently true. There had been an economic revolution which transformed a rural backwater into a modern industrial state. This was matched by a urban revolution which turned most soviet citizens into city dwellers. Health, education, living standards, mortality rates, social services; all at a level unimaginably better than in pre-soviet times. Even the repression of the Stalin period had become a dark nightmare now firmly in the past. No doubt many former soviet citizens today will dwell on this when they see the disaster their country has become.

Third, the revolution launched the International Communist Movement which became one of the great political forces of the 20th century. Communist Parties in every country in the world with a combined membership running into scores of millions and involved in just about every progressive struggle on the planet. From the General Strike in Britain in 1926 to the General Strike in Indonesia in 1928. From the International Brigades in Spain to the resistance movements in Nazi occupied Europe. From the struggle for Indian Independence to the Vietnam War. From Cuba to Angola; the International Communist Movement was the backbone of a genuinely mass international socialist movement which help shape most of the great struggles of the century. Like any mass movement it was shaped by the conditions it found itself in and made its fair share of mistakes but the balance sheet of history will show it to have been a truly great and heroic movement full of truly great and heroic people and all a product of the Russian Revolution.

In 1991 the Soviet Union came to an end much to the delight of the forces of international capitalism. With it came the confident prediction that capitalism would now reign supreme and unchallenged and that a new phase in human history had begun. What they failed to recognise was that socialism both as an idea and a political movement is a direct response to the existence of capitalism. As long as capitalism exists socialist movements will emerge to challenge it. Like the socialist movements of the 20th century they will be a product of the objective conditions that shape them. I mentioned earlier that I was in Moscow in 1977 about the time of the 60th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. That same year I was also elected to the National Executive Committee of the British Young Communist League. At a Communist Party school in Derby one of the discussions was on the legacy of the Russian Revolution. Leading off the discussion was the then editor of Marxism Today, James Klugman, who concluded by saying. "The Russian revolution was a long time ago and took place in a very different world to the one we are now living in. We should not be trying to replicate it but rather recognise that the task of each generation is to build an organised movement for socialism. This movement will take different forms at different times; but the task remains".