This so-called October Revolution was an “armed insurrection” carried out by the Bolshevik Party using the apparatus of the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin insisted that the transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Bolsheviks take this militarized form rather than the political form of a vote by the forthcoming All-Russian Congress of Soviets, an approach favored by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Lenin did this because he believed, as did Marx, that the class struggle was class warfare and so necessarily involved physical violence. No other method could demonstrate where the real power lay. In the same manner, Lenin understood the literal meaning of Marx’s call to “expropriate the expropriators” by urging the masses to “steal the stolen.” This was no violation of Marx’s view of the logic of history — armed coercion was always integral to that logic. And so, the October coup set the precedent for the continuing use of coercion by the Party through all the stages required to construct socialism.
From his refuge in Finland, Lenin initiated pressure for such an insurrection in the wake of the Kornilov affair of the late summer, and by October 10th he had persuaded the Central Committee to vote 10 to 2 for such an action “in principle.” But the task of organizing the insurrection fell to Leon Trotsky. In order to give the Party coup an appearance of greater proletarian legitimacy, Trotsky delayed it so that it would coincide with the forthcoming, national Congress of Soviets. This was against Lenin’s express command. Trotsky also engineered the creation within the Soviet of the Military Revolutionary Committee, which was in fact dominated by the Bolsheviks, to carry out the actual takeover of Petrograd.
In other words, this Revolution was a minority military action, not a mass event like the one that occurred in February, or in 1905, for that matter. To be more precise, what did occur was an amateur police operation of the Military Revolutionary Committee, some sailors of the Baltic fleet and a handful of Red Guards to take over the nerve-centers of the capital on the night of October 24th. The Petrograd proletariat and the city’s military garrison remained overwhelmingly neutral. Because there were no forces to fight for the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had almost nothing to overthrow. As Lenin himself put it, the Party “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up.”
Thus the strategy that Lenin had embraced in his APRIL THESES paid off in the October seizure of power. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, hitherto unknown to most Russians as well as the outside world, suddenly found himself the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Republic, a government that was in fact little more than the Bolshevik Party in power. This new power immediately issued two decrees. The first, “On Peace,” called for a negotiated end to the war. What this really meant was Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the conflict. The second, “On Land,” socialized gentry and state properties. What this implied was an endorsement of the already accomplished agrarian revolution. As Lenin put it to Trotsky on the night of the coup, “it makes the head swim.”
Our sense of wonder at the Bolshevik victory has lingered in the historiography ever since, where it has produced problems of interpretation The problem arises from the facts. First, that the Bolshevik Party was largely Lenin’s personal creation and second, that his personal insistence on armed insurrection was the driving force which led up to the October coup. However, does all this mean that without Lenin there would have been no Red October and hence no Soviet regime?
This rather extreme version of the “great man” theory has often been advanced. Even Trotsky, though committed as a Marxist to the social logic of history, comes close to holding Lenin indispensable to Bolshevik victory. Trotsky may have wished to be more cautious. The events of 1917 — from Order Number One in February to the emergence of the Left SRs in October — show that even without Lenin there was ample room on the Russian Left for an extremist party of “revolution now.” Consider that statement carefully. Before October it was the case that Lenin’s Party, although the most hierarchical of all the Russian parties, was not as yet the monolithic instrument commanded at will by its leader that it later became.
Indeed, Trotsky’s own historical role belies the overriding importance he attributed to Lenin. In addition, Trotsky’s role also points to the fluidity of the Party in 1917. After all, Trotsky abandoned the Mensheviks only in June 1917. And in October, it was Trotsky who was directing the Bolshevik seizure of power. Go figure! He even countermanded Lenin’s impatient directives in order to coordinate the Party takeover with the Congress of Soviets, so as to enhance the coup’s “proletarian” appearance. Lenin, for all the impetus he gave to the coup, had nothing to do with carrying it out, since he was still in hiding when it began. Where Lenin was more than truly indispensable was in his role, over the previous fourteen years, as architect of the Party organization. However, even in this domain, by 1917, there were numerous little Lenin’s who could have pursued the same maximalist policies.
The maximalist strategy that Lenin worked out in the April Theses would work only in the exceptional social circumstances that the war had by 1917 created in Russia. The central fact of that year was that the linchpin of the over-centralized Russian Imperial system was removed. From that point on, all subordinate structures in the country began to quickly unravel. The army, the industrial economy, the social structure of the countryside, and the administrative system of the Empire, both in the Great Russian provinces and among the border nationalities all disintegrated. By the end of the year, Russia no longer possessed any functioning, organized structures. The result was a generalized void of power, an interregnum in all aspects of national life. Thus, by the end of October the wreckage of the Russian Empire was up for grabs, vulnerable to whatever force with the will and organizational capacity to take it over.
The dynamic of national disintegration began with the army and was driven throughout the year above all by the war. The policy of the Provisional Government was to prosecute the war to a victorious conclusion at the side of its democratic allies. The policy of the Soviet was to fight only for a “democratic peace without annexations or indemnities.” Once discipline had been restored after the work of Order Number One, the liberal-socialist coalition government formed in April adopted a compromise war policy. As a result, Kerensky’s democratic offensive was launched in June. This offensive, of course, ended in nothing less than a rout. Army discipline was once again undermined and fueled the Bolshevik thrust of the July Days. And that event in turn led to General Kornilov’s attempt in August to restore Russia’s fighting capacity by sweeping away the Soviets. But this failed effort discredited the army command and officer corps once and for all. After August, therefore, the army simply melted away, with the peasant soldiers trekking home to participate in the partition of the gentry’s lands. Thus, all the political crises of the DUAL POWER, from April to July to August, were directly caused by the army, and by the fall, the impact of these crises on the army was such that the coercive power of the state was destroyed. The name for such a situation is anarchy — the genuine absence of government.
In the course of 1917 all of old Russia’s structures — the state, the army, the Empire, the local administration, the economy and both the urban and rural societies — came apart simultaneously. Such a situation explains why, amidst a state of generalized collapse, that there was no chance of establishing a durable constitutional democracy. History militated against it. Any government that would have tried to intervene against this revolutionary process before its full unwinding would have been discredited. Even if the Provisional Government had found the resolve to immediately convene a Constituent Assembly, to unilaterally take Russia out of the war, and to give the land to the peasants, this would have hardly had the desired result. These were measures that critics later felt the Provisional Government should have adopted in order to stop Bolshevism. These measures were also, in fact, similar to Bolshevik policy. They would have been revolutionary and disruptive in their effect, and they would have only deepened the anarchy without giving the Provisional Government the new coercive means to master it — means that came quite naturally to the Bolsheviks.
The fact of the matter is that in 1917 the impetus for disintegration was such that, once it had played itself out, only an authoritarian, coercive solution was possible for creating some new type or order. As the historian and leader of the Kadet Party Paul Miliukov put the matter, by the end of the summer the alternatives for Russia were either Kornilov or Lenin. But since Kornilov and the forces of the traditional order that he symbolized had no real power, only Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in a position to pick up the pieces and to fashion a new type of order once the storm had spent its force.
This new type of order would be the “dictatorship of the proletariat” proclaimed after October as the vehicle for the transition from capitalism to socialism. Drawing on Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune, during the summer of 1917 in his book State and Revolution, Lenin had interpreted the direct proletarian democracy of the workers’ soviets as the realization of a new “commune” state. As such, the soviets constituted the basis of the coming dictatorship and the new socialist state. Thus, although it is only amidst a general process of national disintegration that the Russian workers’ movement could have acquired “world-historical” significance, this broader process indeed received its political and ideological meaning from working-class action or, at the very least, from action in the name of the working class.
It is for this reason that interpretation of the Russian Revolution both in the East and in the West, has been overwhelmingly concerned with the working class in relation to the Bolshevik Party. This question is urgent because whatever legitimacy the Soviet regime could once claim, in its own view, depended on the ideological conformity of the proletariat with the Party and hence, on the socialist authenticity of October. How then to explain the coming to power of the proletariat in October 1917? In fact, the proletariat did not come to power. What came to power was a political and ideological organization, the Bolshevik Party. Yet, the historical myth surrounding Red October, is that of a “revolution from below.” A revolution led by the Russian masses in the interests of the Russian masses. But our narrative of the events of October have shown how nearly absent the working classes of Petrograd were during the so-called “ten days that shook the world.”
The myth of proletarian October is the myth of the triumph of the alienated and dehumanized masses over all their sufferings and deprivations. In this historically logical process, suffering is the criteria of authentic humanity. This was as true for Marx as it was for Dostoevsky. And since intense crisis makes suffering most acute, the war and the social collapse of 1917 conferred on the humiliated and offended of Russian life quintessential human status. For the suffering of 1917 was no myth, but a most cruel, physical and mental fact. In these circumstances, the modest Russian proletariat could indeed appear in the eyes of its self-appointed leaders, and in the eyes of many socialists throughout the world, to be the universal class and the bearer of the logic of history. Thus this myth became a mighty empirical force, the indispensable launching pad of the whole Soviet dream.