Events leading to the 1917 "October Revolution" in Russia
It was a long-drawn-out process
The October Russian Revolution, which actually took place on 6th and 7th November 1917 (the discrepancy was brought about by differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars), had causes that went back many years and many events can be cited as contributory factors.
However, in order to distinguish between what characterised the October Revolution and that of March 1917 that overthrew the Tsar, one needs to go back to 1903 and the Second Congress of the Social-Democratic Party that was held in London because such a meeting on Russian soil would have been impossible.
Who should lead the peasantry?
At that meeting there was a fundamental disagreement about the means that should be used to bring about a revolution in Russia. It was agreed that the revolution must involve both the workers in the factories and the peasants on the farms, but who should be responsible for leading the peasantry, as they did not have the degree of organisation that was being built among the factory workers?
The choice lay between the workers and the bourgeoisie (i.e. the middle classes). One view was that the workers did not have the education or influence to lead the peasantry, which did not have the political will to move forward to Socialism given that its main interest was in getting control of the land. The bourgeoisie was therefore the class that should lead the peasantry into overthrowing the Tsar and creating a provisional government that would be largely capitalist in nature, with Socialism waiting until conditions were more conducive for its emergence.
The other view was that the bourgeoisie was, at heart, counter-revolutionary and not suited to leading the peasantry. The workers had become imbued with Marxism and were aware of their role in changing society. The bourgeoisie was not driven by this philosophy and was therefore not intellectually minded to lead the Revolution. The Revolution, when it came, must be a working-class one with no input from the bourgeosie.
At the 1903 Congress the majority of delegates took the latter view and were therefore dubbed the “Bolsheviks” from the Russian “bolshinstvo” meaning “majority”. The minority became known as the “Mensheviks”, from “menshinstvo” (minority). The Bolsheviks were led by Lenin and the Mensheviks, who included Trotsky, by Martov.
One long-term consequence of this split was that the Bolsheviks concentrated their efforts on party organisation at the factory level, with the middle classes being largely excluded from the underground groups that were being formed in all the large factories and which would develop into the “soviets” (delegates from all the factories in a city) that became the driving force of the October Revolution.
The Mensheviks continued to seek to appeal to middle-class intellectuals and to inculcate a liberal spirit that would be acceptable both to workers and capitalists.
The first two Revolutions
There were three Russian Revolutions. The first, in 1905, was put down with great brutality by the Tsar’s troops, although it had never threatened to use physical force except in a few localities.
The Revolution of March 1917 (known as the February Revolution for the reason given above) occurred under very different circumstances, with Russia being nearly three years into a war against Germany that was taking a very heavy toll not only of lives but in terms of economic chaos. A wave of strikes and demonstrations led to workers disarming the police and finding increased support among the soldiers who were sent against them. A Provisional Committee of the Duma, which was a Parliament of sorts but with very limited powers and consisting almost entirely of members of the bourgeoisie, declared itself to be the new authority in the country.
In support of the Duma, a new soviet was created in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been called since 1914) that consisted of deputies from factories both large and small and also from every unit of the armed forces. This adopted the title of the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and was largely a creation of the Mensheviks.
The Bolsheviks had been outsmarted by the February Revolution. One of their problems was that their organisations in the factories were illegal and many activists had been arrested and sent into exile. The Mensheviks, on the other hand, had managed to avoid over-stepping the mark and their organisations were still largely intact. The February Revolution, which forced the Tsar to abdicate, was therefore the Menshevik Revolution.
The Provisional Government that ruled Russia between the two 1917 revolutions was led by Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer and the only Socialist member of the Duma Committee. However, the new government was very much a middle-class one and the prospect for the workers and peasants was that they would only have a limited role in determining the future direction of the country.
The rise of the Bolsheviks
That was not what Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted. Lenin had not even been in the country at the time of the February Revolution but in exile in Switzerland. When he returned to Russia, in a sealed train as it crossed Germany, he declared in his “April theses” his demand for “all power to the soviets” because he did not envisage the Provisional Government giving way to working-class government any time soon.
Lenin had a point. Actions by the Provisional Government during the summer of 1917 included opposing any transfer of land to the peasants and support for factory owners in resisting takeovers by workers’ committees. When a massive demonstration by workers and soldiers, in July, called for the government to be overthrown, the policy of the government, supported by the Mensheviks, was for the Bolsheviks to be suppressed by force.
However, in order to do this the Provisional Government had to call upon the forces of the old regime that had formerly supported the Tsar, namely officers from the elite army regiments and the police, led by an old-style general named Kornilov. It soon became clear that, if this force were to prevail, the result would be a swing back to what had existed before the February Revolution and thus the restoration of the Tsar. This was not something that many people outside the ruling class wanted to happen and so allegiances began to switch back once again.
The Bolsheviks now picked up support in soviets across the country, becoming the majority in more than 200 as well as the soldiers’ soviets of the front-line armies. The war was so unpopular that the soldiers refused to support the Provisional Government any longer, and without that support it was impossible for it to continue.
The point of no return
At midday on 6th November the military committee of the Petrograd soviet instructed the armed workers’ guards in the factories, units of the Petrograd garrison, and sailors in the Baltic fleet, to seize the key points in the city as a preliminary to marching on the Winter Palace and arresting the Provisional Government.
The industrial working class of Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, had therefore brought to a conclusion a long process of overthrowing Tsardom and setting free the creative forces of the Russian people. Once the Bolshevik Revolution had succeeded there was no way by which the process could be reversed.