Russia, Autumn 1917.
Excerpted from The Dilemmas of Lenin, by Tariq Ali, Verso 2017.
Two American journalists, John Reed and Albert Rhys Williams, were observing the events in Russia close-up and summarising the day to each other before sending their reports back to the United States. Reed had arrived in the country later than Williams and was being briefed in some detail by his colleague, who explained the impact of the April Theses.
‘Lenin didn’t say it was complete either, as I get it,’ I said. ‘Its’ all very complicated. Nor did Lenin say at what moment the transition to a socialist government should be made – only that these first steps must be made.’
Reed was impatient and wanted to know when the Bolsheviks would strike. Williams replied that a strike would only take place when they had a majority.
By October the Bolsheviks had won a majority in the Moscow and Petrograd soviets. They were the strongest political current in factory committees in many smaller towns where they did not control the soviets. This combination was decisive, added to which peasant militancy was setting the countryside alight, with land seizures reported from throughout the country. The nationalities were flexing their muscles and from the trenches of the eastern front to the factories and city centres, the demand for peace had become unchallengeable. Military revolutionary committees under the Bolsheviks were springing up in many towns.
After the Bolsheviks’ electoral triumph, John Reed turned to Rhys Williams. ‘And now?’
‘It can’t be long now.’
Leon Trotsky, recently released from prison and elected chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) of the Soviet, now began to prepare the insurrection of 25 October. The garrison was under the control of the MRC, and Red Guards from the factories were linked to strategically important regiments. Elections for new unit commissars in the military units of the garrison saw most of the Menshevik and SR commissars voted out and replaced with Bolsheviks. In reality power now lay in the hand of the Bolshevik Party. The final assault on the Winter Palace was more of a formality, a symbolic event and far less dramatic than its depiction by Eisenstein in October. The resistance was pitiful.
A few days later on 25 October, the two men set out early for the meeting of the soviet where the announcement was about to be made.
The emergency meeting of the Petrograd Soviet began at 2:35 pm that day. Trotsky was given the floor: ‘On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists. He continued to give the delegates and account of what had been achieved. As he spoke Lenin entered the hall to deafening applause, a standing ovation and chants of ‘Long live Comrade Lenin, back with us again.’ Trotsky gave him the floor. A calm Lenin, speaking only for a few minutes, declared that a new historical epoch, a new period of history had begun, ending with a pledge to construct a new socialist order and the cry ‘Long live the world socialist revolution.’
The Bolsheviks had taken power.
Excerpt from A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, by Neil Faulkner, Pluto Press, 2017.
The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets which assembled on 25 October was the ‘parliament’ of the new revolutionary regime. Because delegates continued to arrive from remote regions, and because party allegiances were sometimes uncertain, we do not have precise figures for the balance of forces. What is clear, however, is that the Bolsheviks were the largest party, with about 60 percent of the seats, and their Left Social-Revolutionary allies accounted for another 15 percent or so, giving the Left a thumping majority. The Mensheviks and Right SRs immediately walked out, refusing to recognize the insurrection, leaving only some smaller left groups alongside the Bolsheviks and Left SRs.
The Congress set up a new government, the Council of People’s Commissars (the Sovnarkom). This body, which initially numbered 15, was the ‘cabinet’ of the new regime. The most important members were Lenin, who was Chairman, and Trotsky, who was first Commissar of Foreign Affairs and later Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs.
History records only a few such instances of genuine people power. The new ‘ministers’ had to hand-write their own decrees for lack of clerical assistants. The new ‘cabinet secretary’ had to bang out the minutes on a commandeered typewriter with two fingers because there was no typist. The new ‘Finance Minister’ owed his appointment to the fact that he had once worked as a clerk in a French bank. When the ‘War Minister’ tried to flag down a car in the street to take him to the front, he was told it belonged to the First Machine-Gun Regiment and he could not have it.
The new ‘parliament’ of the revolution seemed equally incongruous when set against the bourgeois assemblies with which it was inevitably compared. The American journalist John Reed was an eyewitness at the Second Soviet Congress. Here, for him, during these ‘ten days that shook the world’, was the living embodiment of a world turned upside down:
I stood there watching the new delegates come in – burly, bearded soldiers, workmen in black blouses, a few long-haired peasants. The girl in charge….smiled contemptuously….’See how rough and ignorant they look! The Dark People…’ It was true: the depths of Russia had been stirred, and it was the bottom which came uppermost now.
The enemies of the new regime – Monarchists, Liberals, Reformists – were convinced it could not last. On the very day of the insurrection, one conservative daily, looking at the social character of the revolutionary movement through a lens of bourgeois privilege, was sneering about the prospects:
Let us suppose for a moment that the Bolsheviks do gain the upper hand. Who will govern us then? The cooks perhaps, those connoisseurs of cutlets and beefsteaks? Or maybe the firemen? The stableboys, the chauffeurs? Or perhaps the nursemaids will rush off to meetings of the Council of State between the diaper-washing sessions. Who then? Where are the statesmen? Perhaps the mechanics will run the theatres, the plumbers foreign affairs, the carpenters the post office. Who will it be?
History would soon reveal whether ‘statesmen’ were essential or disposable. Everything depended on the initiative and creativity of the masses. To encourage this, the Sovnarkom issued a string of decrees in rapid succession:
- A decree on peace (26 October) calling upon ‘all the belligerent peoples and their governments to start immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.’
- A decree on land (26 October) stating that ‘private ownership of land shall be abolished forever’ and that all land shall ‘become the property of the whole people and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it.’
- A decree on the national question (2 November) proclaiming full equality and the right of all peoples to ‘free self-determination, up to secession and formation of an independent state.’
- A decree on workers’ control (14 November) stipulating that workplaces were to be run by ‘all the workers of the given enterprise through their elected bodies’ in the context of ‘planned regulation of the national economy’.
- A decree on participatory democracy (22 November) arguing that ‘the electors’ right to recall those elected’ was ‘the fundamental principle of true democracy….[in]….all representative assemblies without exception’.
- Two decrees on the emancipation of women (16 and 18 December) declaring full equality of men and women, making divorce automatic upon request by either spouse, and legitimising children born out of wedlock.