Following the Revolution of February 1917 that overthrew the monarchy and established Parliamentary government in Russia, the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) who created the Soviet system of government. This involved a radical transformation of the machinery of governance, although a Civil War took place until 1922 so the Soviet Union was not formed until then. This paper begins by sketching the background to the Revolution, explaining its slogans of “All power to the Soviets”, “Down with autocracy”, “down with war” and “Peace, land and bread” and the rise of the Bolshevik party.
It identifies autocracy, World War I and the economic situation as the main causes of the Revolution. The concluding section examines the beginning of the Soviet system of government in Russia and briefly assesses whether the Bolsheviks delivered what they promised. Sources used in this paper include several primary accounts including Leon Trotsky’s, the writings of Lenin and Morgan Phillips Price’s Reminiscences (1921) as well as several secondary accounts.
Trotsky (1879-1940) led the Petrograd Soviet and later founded the Red Army, Lenin (emerged as leader of the Bolsheviks and then of what became the Soviet Union. Trotsky was later exiled for criticizing the centralization of power. Price (1885-1973) was a British anti-war activist who reported on the Revolution for the Guardian newspaper. He was fluent in Russian. Few accounts of the events of 1917 are neutral, reflecting the beliefs of their writers. Evaluation therefore needs to draw on a variety of sources. Causes of Russian Revolution of 1917.
Russia in 1917 was a nation in turmoil. In February, the Tsar, Nicholas II (1868-1918) was forced to abdicate and a Provisional Government was formed under Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov (1861-1925) succeeded by Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) who led a coalition of various factions united only in their opposition to the Tsar. The Tsars were “Autocrats” which they bore as an official title. This followed centuries of autocratic rule by the Tsars, aided by a small number of aristocrats while the majority of people were serfs, who lived in bondage to their masters.
“The tsarist power”, Lenin wrote, “representing only a handful of feudal landlords” controlled the “entire machinery of the state the army, the police and the bureaucracy” (Lenin 25). Trotsky wrote about what he called “imperial absolutism” arguing that Tsarist autocracy, in part inspired by the Orthodox Church (presumably because it is hierarchical), enslaved the people, failed to stimulate economic growth and kept Russia is a backward condition (Tolstoy 5). In response to demands from the people for greater freedom, Alexander II (1818-1881), abolished serfdom in 1861.
He introduced some political reforms, establishing the Duma (Parliament). However, Alexander II (1818-1881) and Nicholas II reversed these reforms, which, says Trotsky, failed to make fundamental changes and “always preserved the foundations of a caste system and the monarchy itself” (Trotsky 72). Nicholas II faced a Revolution in 1905 following the defeat by Japan, after which he convened a Duma to which he delegated some powers but kept many. However, he retained the title “Autocrat” and the exclusive right to initiate legislation, to negotiate treaties and to declare war (Dmytryshyn 33).
The peasants (former serfs) were largely excluded from governance, although members of the bourgeois (middle classes and intellectuals) did gain seats. Nicholas constantly dissolved the Duma. Dissatisfiaction with his failure to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy and with his prosecution of World War I led to riots and strikes in February 1917. Nicholas dissolved the Duma on the 12th then employed troops to “suppress the unruly mob” (Dmytryshyn 40). Dmytryshyn describes the government as “inefficient and corrupt” (38). Russia’s participation in World War I was extremely unpopular.
Ill equipped and half-starved Russian soldiers suffered defeat after defeat. For socialists such as Lenin and Trotsky, the War was an imperialist venture that could only result in more misery for the proletariat, the laborers and working class. Trotsky wrote that Russia entered the war to gain territory in Turkey, Persia, Galicia and Armenia but also as an “agency for other mightier world powers” Russia could only prosecute the war by becoming a “colony of her allies” (Trotsky 13) or as Price commented, of “one of the two belligerent capitalist alliances in Europe” (Price 136).
Lenin denounced territorial acquisition as a legitimate goal for war (Dmytryshyn 58). Despite promises to introduce further reforms, Nicholas vacillated and postponed change, losing “all respect and authority (Dmytryshyn, 71). When Nicholas introduced bread rationing in February 1917, food riots broke out in Petrograd. He again dissolved the Duma. A series of mutinies by soldiers and officers resulted in Lvov, Kerensky and others forming the Provisional Government then forcing Nicholas’ abdication. His brother refused to become either regent or the Tsar, and the monarchy ended.
The Provisional Government, however, did not withdraw from the War but wanted to redeem Russia’s reputation by pushing for victory. Although socialists were part of the new government, it was dominated by members of the bourgeois and by those who actually profited from the war. Price wrote, “capitalists with 800 per cent war profits” were still walking “about the countryside just as they were under the Tsar” (Price 45). Lenin denounced the new government because it left the old machinery of government intact.
He argued that parliamentary democracy, which the provisional government promised to introduce, was merely an “advanced type of bourgeois state “ that “in practice stands above the people” leaving the “army, police and the bureaucracy intact. ” The people would not be free until they “smash and abolish that machinery” (Lenin 34). Under the Provisional Government, the war continued while the people still starved. In Petrograd, the Soviet committee consisting of some 2,500 deputies with Trotsky as chairman challenged the authority of the Government.
Soviets were informal committees representing the workers, soldiers and peasants and were broadly Marxist in political philosophy. Dmytryshyn called them “self-appointed” (43). The Soviets began an anti-war campaign, using such slogans as “down with war” and “peace, land and bread” which became the manifesto of the Bolsheviks, who split from other communist or socialist groups in 1903. Disunited and fractious, the Provisional Government began to lose authority. The Soviets also used “all power to the soviets” as a slogan, claiming that a Soviet government would give power and land to the people, end the war and put bread on the table.
In June, a gathering known as the First Congress of Soviets declared that the army was now under their command and not that of the Provisional Government. While the Bolsheviks were still a minority within the Congress, their program attracted wide support. Hosking suggests that their ultimate success was due less to their tight party discipline or good leadership but because they were “sensitive to the mood of the masses” (Hosking 473). This enabled them to fill a “political vacuum” (Hosking 481).
For centuries, the peasants had wanted their own land thus the slogan “peace, land, bread” “revived … centuries old aspirations. ” They supported the Bolsheviks not “for territorial gain” or even “for parliamentary government” but “for land” (Dmytryshyn 58). Observer Sukhanov described the program both “minimum” and “indispensable” (Sukhanov 264). It made the Bolsheviks “a magnet for the masses” (viii). Opposition to the war centered on the claim that World War I was a capitalist war fought for capitalist gain. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky opposed all war.
What they denounced was a war that “brought disaster upon the world” which would only end when the people took “the government entirely in their hands” (Price 45). Lenin called the war a “predatory imperialist war” which the Provisional Government showed no sign of abandoning (Lenin 17). As the Bolsheviks became more popular, the stage was set for them to seize control of the government. On October 25 (November 9 Old Calendar) Bolsheviks occupied the Winter Palace in Petrograd, where the Provisional Government sat, and took over the state.
There was hardly any bloodshed (Dmytryshyn 71). The Second Congress of Soviets was then convened, which according to historian Dmytryshyn achieved three objectives, issuing a decree on peace which withdrew Russia from the war, a decree in land and electing “the first soviet government” (Dmytryshyn 72). Conclusion Effectively, this established the Soviet system that lasted until the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991 although until the end of the Civil War in 1922, the state was called the “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic”.
The Bolshevik Party changed its name to the Communist Party in 1918. The philosophy was that the people ruled through their Soviets. A one-party system was established, with the “people’s dictatorship’ exercised by the party’s central organs, the policy-making Central Committee, the policy-implementing Politburo and the Secretariat that ran the party and state bureaucracy, which replaced the old bureaucracy. A new army and police also replaced the old ones, which Lenin said needed to be “smashed”. Real power was concentrated in the hands of the party elite.
Trotsky described the October Revolution as distinctive and unique, unlike others. Unlike “other bourgeois revolutions”, this one was led by a “new class” and found its rationale neither in the Bible nor in “that secularized Christianity called ‘parliamentary democracy’ but in the material relations of the social classes” (Trotsky 11). Trotsky was referring to the Marxist concept of material dialectic that ultimately those who labor will own the means of production and run their own state, replacing exploitation with equality.
Analysts suggest that in establishing one-party rule, the Bolsheviks failed to deliver their promises. They did end Russia’s engagement in the war, realizing that without peace “they could not hope to reorganize Russia and the rest of the world according to the projects of Marx and Lenin” (Dmytryshyn 43) but Hosking says that they also plunged” Russia into a Civil war” which “generated hunger on a scale not seen for three centuries. ” They promised land but deprived the people by “force of the fruits of that land” (Hosking 475).
Having vehemently denounced imperialism and territorial annexation, the Soviet Union went on to acquire an Empire in Eastern Europe after World War II. By establishing government of a single party, those outside the party were denied any say. What emerged was a “totalitarian regime” more ruthless, says Hosking, “than its predecessor. ” The Soviet system, which rested on a “peasant tradition of local democracy” would “soon destroy” this heritage (Hosking 477). References Primary Lenin, Vladimir. The Essentials of Lenin in Two Volumes.
Volume One. Wesport, CT: Hyperian Press. 1947. Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket, 2008. Price, M. Phillips. My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution. London: George, Allen and Unwin. 1921. Sukhanov, N. N. , and Joel Carmichael. The Russian Revolution, 1917. A Personal Record. London: Oxford University Press, 1955. Secondary Dmytryshyn, Basil. USSR: a concise history. New York: Scribner, 1984. Hosking, Geoffrey A. Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997.