Working-class democracy in action – a mass meeting in the giant Putilov engineering plant in Petrograd in 1917
The February Revolution of 1917 destroyed the 300-year-old Romanov monarchy in five days of urban insurrection. What was to replace it?
It had been the greatest proletarian revolt in history. The battle had been fought and won entirely through the mass action of working people. The bourgeoisie and the middle class had played no part whatsoever.
Yet power had passed not to the workers, but to the liberal bourgeois politicians of the Kadet Party in the Tsarist Duma (a parliamentary body elected on a restricted franchise and with very limited powers). The Kadets were a party of liberal landlords, industrialists, and intellectuals.
The mountains in labour had given birth to a mouse. Trotsky called it ‘the paradox of the February Revolution’. What had happened?
The masses were not yet organised as a political force capable of governing society. Nor did they yet have confidence in their own ability to do so.
But politics abhors a vacuum, and power flows along the lines of least resistance. So the empty seats at Russia’s top table were immediately occupied by liberal-bourgeois bottoms.
In any case, many ordinary people still harboured illusions in the rhetoric and promises of smooth-talking politicians. It was necessary for the masses to learn through bitter experience that the Kadets were class enemies who represented landlords, bosses, and generals.
The confusion was compounded by the leaders of the parties of the Left. The Social Revolutionaries (peasant socialists and anarchists) were a mass peasant party formed from a fusion of old Narodnik factions (see MHW65). They embodied in party form the conservatism of rich peasants, the wavering of middle peasants, and the ignorance of poor peasants.
Their fractured and backward class base prevented the Social Revolutionaries from giving decisive revolutionary leadership. They soon split. The Right SRs backed the Provisional Government. The Left SRs became allies of the Bolsheviks.
The Mensheviks (reformist socialists) argued that the role of Russian Social Democrats was to support the liberal bourgeoisie’s efforts to establish parliamentary democracy and civil liberties – not to make their own revolution.
The Bolsheviks (revolutionary socialists) at first adopted a similar position. Even after breaking with the Mensheviks (in 1903), they had continued to believe that the Russian Revolution would be limited to a ‘bourgeois revolution’. The logic of this position seemed to demand support for the new Provisional Government in 1917.
On 3 April, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, arrived at Petrograd’s Finland Station. His return from exile was greeted by a crowd of several thousand workers and soldiers. He immediately overturned his party’s policy, denouncing the imperialist war, calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, and proclaiming ‘the worldwide socialist revolution’.
The Bolshevik Party was supremely democratic. It was a ferment of debate throughout 1917. Lenin had to wage a hard internal fight to overturn the policy of conservative leaders like Stalin.
Three things were decisive. First, Lenin embodied the mood of rank-and-file party activists, and they in turn were embedded in a mass working-class movement that was moving rapidly to the left in response to the deepening social and political crisis.
Second, the Provisional Government, because of the class forces it represented, was unable to satisfy the popular demands that became encapsulated in the Bolshevik slogan ‘Peace, Bread, and Land’. It was determined to continue the war, it could not solve the economic crisis, and it would not give the land to the peasants.
Third, the masses were organised in a network of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils (‘soviets’). The soviets gave democratic expression to popular demands, organised mass protests to achieve them, and represented the embryo of an alternative people’s government.
The Bolsheviks would crystallise the potential inherent in the soviets with two slogans: ‘Down with the Provisional Government’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’. The implication was that the bourgeois state was to be overthrown and replaced by a new proletarian state.
The paradox of the February Revolution had created what Trotsky called ‘dual power’: the simultaneous existence within society of two alternative and competing centres of political authority.
The Provisional Government, in control of the old state apparatus and representing the propertied classes, was one pole of the dual power. The soviets, democratic assemblies of the revolutionary masses, formed the other.
The dual power was highly unstable, and therefore unsustainable. Either the Provisional Government would crush the soviets and re-establish the uncontested rule of private property. Or the soviets would overthrow the Provisional Government and create a new social order.
Lenin’s mission was to rearm his party with this understanding and to prepare it for a second revolution. In July, Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party, and the two revolutionary leaders henceforward worked as close political allies.
Lenin’s pamphlet, State and Revolution, was published in August 1917 as a major contribution to this rearming of the party.
He exposed and denounced the reformist illusions in the capitalist state which had gained ground among Social Democrats (especially in the German Social Democratic Party: see MHW67), insisting that the capitalist state was not a neutral force, but one committed to the defence of ruling-class interests.
In this, he was reasserting the authentic Marxist tradition, for Marx, based largely on the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, had argued that the capitalist state had to be smashed and replaced by a new kind of state based on mass participatory democracy.
‘The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms,’ Lenin wrote. ‘The state arises where, when, and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.’
More simply, ‘the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. It consisted of ‘bodies of armed men’ for the suppression of popular resistance to the exploitation, oppression, and violence of the ruling class.
Socialists, argued Lenin, seek the abolition of classes and therefore the abolition of the repressive state. But the state would only ‘wither away’ with the ‘withering away’ of class antagonisms. In the furnace of revolution, with the class struggle at white-heat, the workers had to create their own state to protect and advance their interests.
This was what Lenin, following Marx, called ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. The choice of phrase is poor. We think of dictatorship and democracy as polar opposites.
But the underlying idea is sound. The state is a repressive institution, regardless of which class controls it. But whereas a bourgeois state defends the property of the rich, a workers’ state – where elected delegates are accountable to mass assemblies, and armed popular militias are under democratic control – defends the interests of the great majority.
The soviets played a growing role in the running of society in the course of 1917. More and more, ordinary workers, soldiers, and sailors in the revolutionary capital ignored the orders of the Provisional Government and obeyed only those of the soviets.
Mass consciousness was moving sharply to the left under the impact of events and experience. Power was passing from the old state to the new democracy.
At some point, matters would go critical. The masses would look to the soviets for a final settlement of the revolutionary crisis, for the satisfaction of popular demands, for delivery on the revolution’s promises.
Timing would be decisive. A premature insurrection would risk isolating the revolutionary vanguard and allowing the ruling class to destroy it. But to delay the insurrection could also prove fatal.
If the revolutionaries failed to give a lead when the hopes of the broadest masses were at their peak, the danger was that people would relapse back, resigned and apathetic, into the old routines of everyday life. The enthusiasm and energy that had fuelled the revolution would then drain away, and the ruling class would have its chance to rebuild the broken apparatus of power.
Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was being rearmed for a supreme test: the leadership and organisation of an armed proletarian insurrection for the seizure of state power.