Photo: The Great Lenin addresses crowd in 1917
By Peter Cherry
Editor’s note: The original version of this article published on October 25 contained errors which have been corrected in this updated post
On October 25, 1917 (November 7, modern calendar), the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of the great Lenin, led the Red Guards and other armed divisions of the Russian working class in an attack on the capital city of Petrograd, starting a chain of events that would culminate in the overthrow of the bourgeois provisional government and the imposition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was the beginning of the first socialist revolution in history.
This insurrection did not materialize out of nowhere. It was the hard-earned victory of what would now be recognized as a protracted people’s war, beginning in 1905 and continuing through the civil war against the white army and the final defeat of the Tsarist forces in the 1920s. The storming of the Winter Palace and initial overthrow of the Tsar, made possible by the correct application and development of Marxism by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to Russian conditions, represents the greatest victory of the proletariat in world history up until that point.
Lenin would make great contributions to the science of Marxism during this time, with Comrade Stalin later consolidating these into the higher stage of Marxism-Leninism. Among these was his theory that an alliance between the proletariat in the cities and the peasantry in the countryside was not only in the best of interests of both, but was a prerequisite for socialist revolution. Furthermore, this alliance could only be led by the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat, the Communist Party, a political party of a new type. This party was unified by the constant struggle against revisionism in the Russian political scene as well as internationally, and it would direct the revolution from a centralized position, with Lenin at its head.
Russia Before the Great October Socialist Revolution
The success of the Bolsheviks rested largely on decades of patient and principled work by Communists, guided by Lenin’s Thought, who organized resistance against Tsarist rule, the feudal lords of Russia for the past few centuries. Under Tsardom, most people labored all day and night as poor peasants on land owned by big landlords, who treated peasants like slaves. To escape the conditions of semi-feudalism, some moved to the growing cities, where they were forced to work in dangerous large factories and mines. Thousands would die every year in these treacherous workplaces.
Life for those of ethnic minorities (Jews in particular) and oppressed nations was also oppressive in old Russia. Many were segregated and prevented from working the same jobs and living in the same areas as other Russians. Reactionary groups like the Black Hundreds would carry out “pogroms” where they would massacre whole Jewish communities. Religion weighed heavily on the masses of people, with Orthodox priests and officials promoting dangerous superstitions and keeping women out of public life, maintaining aspects of the outdated feudal order. Most women were not allowed to get an education or work outside of the home.
By January 1905 social and political unrest erupted in the Russian Empire, due largely to the increasingly precarious situation of the poor peasants, who were unable to provide for their families on small plots of land, and the reactionary Tsarist government’s continued repression against workers by banning labor unions and strikes. Tsarist forces opened fire on a protest of workers attempting to deliver a petition to the Winter Palace, known today as Bloody Sunday, which kicked off a full scale revolution in the country.
General strikes, naval mutinies, and peasant uprisings quickly overtook Russia, and in a desperate bid to maintain control, Tsar Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto which brought reforms such as the establishment of the Duma as the central legislative body, although women were still excluded and the Tsar held veto powers. The army was used to break up the remaining worker strikes and by the end of December, the revolution had collapsed. Later Lenin would call the failed revolution of 1905 “The Great Dress Rehearsal” and remarked that without it the “victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.”
Starting in 1914, Russia became embroiled in World War I, a global conflict that killed 16 million people, as the imperialist powers fought over who would divide the spoils of the world: the labor, raw materials, and land that the international bourgeoisie wanted for themselves. The Russian ruling class expected an early victory and temporarily had many people fall under their air of confidence. Millions of workers would die fighting for the profits of capitalists in the trenches at the frontlines, either getting shot, gassed, or blown to bits. Those who survived often had crippling injuries.
By late 1916, the Russian ruling class found themselves debating over how to proceed as significant defeats led to high casualties, and the working class in Petrograd and Moscow (the two largest and most industrialized centers of Russia) began to rebel, just as they had in 1905.
Likewise, debate had raged during the war years among revolutionaries. The opportunist Western European “socialists” of the Second International had sided with their imperialist masters at the outbreak of the war, voting for war credits for their respective imperialist governments and spreading national chauvinism. Only Lenin and the Bolsheviks declared that the imperialist war must be turned into a civil war, one that would exacerbate the internal divisions among the global bourgeoisie and advance the revolution.
Prelude to Revolution
In February 1917, mass unrest exploded like a bomb in Tsarist Russia. People demonstrating in Petrograd against hunger began to throw rocks and attack the lines of police, causing soldiers to defect in significant numbers after refusing to shoot demonstrators. The main sections of the Russian ruling class, in alliance with the British and French, desperately maneuvered to prevent an even larger rebellion. The Tsar agreed to abdicate as emperor, replaced by a provisional government with Alexander Kerensky at the helm.
In the months after the institution of this provisional government, the Bolsheviks struggled against rightists of all stripes to advance the revolution to its second stage: socialism. In April 1917, Lenin returned from exile and immediately began an intense line struggle against opportunism and revisionism, most famously in his April Theses.
The Bolsheviks had also, in spite of violent repression and deportation of Party members to Siberia, worked hard to build several clandestine military organizations, became active in the many struggles of the working class, and agitated in every trench and factory over the preceding decade. Very crucially, they helped establish institutions of the New State: the “soviets,” which is Russian for council. The worker and soldier soviets were organized in factories and regiments, and later on also in the villages among the poor peasants, all representing the seeds of the blooming New State, which would supplant the old. These were crucial to Lenin’s plan to transition from parliamentarism to a Soviet Republic.
During this time, the Great War—which had acted to push the internal situation towards greater crisis—had only intensified. The new provisional government committed itself to continuing the war. Major parties who claimed to be on the “left,” the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, supported Kerensky’s policy of sending workers to die in the thousands. In the months that followed, the Bolsheviks exposed the imperialist character of the Kerensky government and fought side by side with the masses, agitating among the people that only the complete destruction of the bourgeois government and the imposition of the dictatorship of the proletariat could end Russia’s engagement in World War I.
Come July 1917, Kerensky would order new offensives on the front, and after several crushing defeats, revolutionary workers, soldiers, and sailors would take to the streets in an armed demonstration on July 3. The Bolsheviks warned that the situation would not be favorable for an all-out offensive on the government, but nevertheless stood by the side of the workers and soldiers. The government issued warrants for mass arrests and gunned down hundreds of workers.
The Smolny Institute, where the Bolsheviks coordinated their preparations, was raided by government troops as was the press of the revolutionary newspaper Pravda. Reactionary patrols lifted the bridges of the Neva River to separate the workers districts from the city centers, just as the police and military had blockaded urban ghettos during previous uprisings. Lenin and others were charged with high treason. Open support for the Bolsheviks temporarily waded, with curfews and foot patrols by soldiers dissuading revolutionary activity.
It was at this time that Comrade Stalin struggled against the defeatists and the opportunists who resigned themselves to unprincipled peace under this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, advocating the seizure of power by force.
“The picture we have now is a dictatorship of the imperialist bourgeoisie and the counter-revolutionary generals. The government, while ostensibly combating this dictatorship, is actually carrying out its will, and is only a shield protecting it from the wrath of the people,” Comrade Stalin said at the Sixth Congress of the Bolsheviks.
“Formerly we stood for the peaceful transfer of power to the Soviets, and we assumed that it would be sufficient for the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets to decide to take power, and the bourgeoisie would peacefully clear out of the way. And, indeed, in March, April and May every decision of the Soviets was regarded as law, because it could always be backed by force. With the disarmament of the Soviets and their (virtual) degradation to the level of mere “trade union” organizations, the situation has changed. Now the decisions of the Soviets are disregarded. To take power now, it is first necessary to overthrow the existing dictatorship.”
Where the Reactionaries Failed, the Communists Succeed
The Russian capitalists and landlords, angered by Kerensky’s failure to decisively stamp out the revolutionary movement, attempted a coup under General Kornilov in August. Kerensky fled the capital and the Bolsheviks took to mobilizing the workers and transforming the districts in which they lived into military bases, creating a Military Defense Committee and building trenches and bunkers to defend against the reactionary offensive. Railroad workers refused to transport Kornilov’s army, and Bolshevik agitators in Kornilov’s ranks provoked mass desertion. After one battle, Kornilov was defeated and arrested.
The Party and the armed masses who surrounded and supported them now knew that the ruling class was willing to wash the revolution away with a genocidal campaign on their own population. The workers, having received the needed military training and experience in the fight against the Kornilovists, had now realized that the Provisional Government had to be smashed and the Soviet government enforced. In the weeks after the failed Kornilov coup, peasants began seizing landlords’ estates and ploughing their fields without permission. The tide was turning.
Through many years of protracted armed struggle involving expropriations, guerrilla attacks by mobile units in the city and countryside, mass propaganda at the frontlines and the city through Bolshevik newspapers, and mass combative demonstrations, the revolution was reaching a critical juncture. The time had come for the Bolshevik Party to marshal forces to strike, to seize targets, and to coordinate further attacks.
On October 16, the Central Committee of the Party elected Comrade Stalin to direct the armed uprising.
Coming from Vyborg district and other urban base areas in Petrograd, the Red Guards (armed worker militias) moved to disarm officers and seize key infrastructure and government offices. Every factory and apartment building became an armed camp, with civilian trucks and vehicles fitted with sheet metal and mounted with machine guns. The revolutionary sailors on the Aurora seized a bridge, allowing Red Guards to quickly take positions. By mid-morning on October 24, the government was holed up in the Winter Palace, with Kerensky again having fled far from the city. At 10 am, the Military Revolutionary Committee declared, with Lenin’s signature at the bottom:
“The Provisional Government has been overthrown. State power has been transferred to the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies–the Military Revolutionary Committee–which is at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison.
The success of the cause for which the people have been fighting–the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of landlordism, the institution of workers’ control of industry and the formation of a Soviet government–is ensured.
Long Live the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ revolution.”
The Birth of Socialism
On October 25 (November 7 in the contemporary calendar) at 1:00 AM, the battleship Aurora and the Fortress of Peter and Paul began firing shells at the Palace. A wave of workers and soldiers surged through the Palace gates, up the stairs, through the labyrinth of corridors and staircases. By 2:00 AM the Palace was fully in the hands of the revolutionaries. The reactionary Provisional Government had officially fallen.
The assembled Congress of Soviets declared that day: “Backed by the will of the vast majority of workers, backed by the victorious uprising of the workers and the garrison which has taken place in Petrograd, the Congress takes power into its own hands.”
The following day, the new government pushed forward to declare all power to the Soviets. They called for immediate negotiations with Germany and Austria-Hungary on “an immediate peace without annexations (without them being able to forcefully incorporate other lands or nations into being under their control).” This peace came at the high cost of ceding over a quarter of Russia’s population and over half its industrial lands, including the majority of its coal fields.
The new government also published the details of the traitorous secret treaties that the last government made with the imperialist countries. They ordered Kerensky’s arrest, released all revolutionary political prisoners, and moved to abolish capital punishment for soldiers on the front.
In terms of land, a decree was made which declared that the property of the big landlords would be abolished without compensation and that their large plantations would be broken apart and given to poor peasant committees. They instituted workers’ control of industry and put forward the right of oppressed nations of the old Russian empire to national self-determination.
With the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic declared, several counterrevolutionary armies rose up and 14 different imperialist powers (including the United States) surrounded and invaded the New State in an attempt to crush the first stronghold of the world proletarian revolution. After three and a half years of a grueling civil war, which nearly smothered the New State in its cradle, the Russian working class and its vanguard the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) defeated their foes.
Follow the October Path!
The seminal events that took place in October of 1917 can never be erased by imperialists and their revisionist lackeys who spread counterrevolutionary ideology. The lessons and achievements of the October revolution remain part of the great heritage of the proletariat and an example of the heights that can be achieved by the organized masses under Communist leadership.