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Russia had witnessed a revolution in 1917, which for the first time witnessed the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This revolution was accomplished in two stages: the first stage was the ‘February Revolution’, which saw the overthrow of the Tsarist Autocracy and the second was the ‘Great’ October Revolution of 1917 which brought the Bolsheviks to power under V.I. Lenin. In addition to these revolutions, the Revolution of 1905 is extremely important in the understanding of the 1917 revolution as it acted as a ‘stepping stone’ for the events of 1917.
There is a great deal of debate regarding the factors that led to the outbreak of this revolution of 1917 and it would not be possible to understand its origins by focusing only on factor. The reasons for the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy and the rise of the Bolsheviks were deeply rooted in the history of Russia and in the problems that it encountered in the economic, political and social spheres.
As far as the economic origins of the Revolution are concerned, one needs to look at the grievances of the peasantry and the newly risen working class. The Russian peasant had long been suffering under conditions of serfdom, which by the 18th century had reduced them virtually to status of slaves.
The reign of Alexander II had witnessed a number of reforms, one of them being the Emancipation of Serfs in 1861 by which the peasants were freed and became an independent holder of his allotment of land. However, it didn’t bring about any significant change in the condition of the peasants as it had been cautiously framed to minimize the change and spread it over time. The amount of land made available to them was, on average, less than that which they had tilled for their own subsistence under serfdom. Moreover, the allocation of land also led to the problem of “cut-off” land as the landlords kept the best lands for themselves. The burden on the peasants had increased as they were required to compensate the landlords for the dues and services which they no longer received. The state provided this compensation to the landlords, while the peasantry had to repay the government in annual redemption dues spread over a period of 49 years. This was the cost of emancipation, which the peasants themselves had to pay. Since these dues also carried an interest liability, it increased the burden on the peasant, along with the taxes which he still had to pay to the state such as poll tax or indirect taxes on items like vodka, sugar, tea, tobacco etc. The peasants also lost the right to use of commons, like forests, pasture lands etc.
The peasant also did not achieve any real personal freedom. This was because the land was held not by them but by the village Commune (mir or obshchina), which was based on the notion of collective identity and was further re-enforced by this act. Moreover, periodic land repartition was carried out, based on the size and capacity of the household to cultivate. As a result of this periodic redistribution of land, it was divided into smaller and smaller strips of land making the modernization of agriculture extremely difficult and prevented the peasants from expanding or improving their strips of land. Also, the peasant was not allowed to leave his village without the authority of the community, and all the households of the village were jointly liable for taxes and redemption dues. This essentially meant that the peasant was still bound to the village by the debt and thus, the act was designed to prevent a mass exodus of the peasantry to the towns. Thus, the peasant sense of ‘justice’ was offended, and a sense of moral outrage prevailed. Moreover, increasing population increased the pressure on land, making subsistence difficult. This further reduced the per capita availability of land for the peasants. In fact by 1900, 52% of the peasants were unable to support themselves.
Thus, the Act of 1861 far from providing relief to the peasantry had increased their burden, given them false hopes and deprived them of their natural, legitimate rights. Rural unrest grew and the incidence of rent and labour strikes and land seizures form private landowners rose in the 1890s-1900s. It played a major part in the revolution of 1905. Another basic cause for the pathetic condition of the peasantry was the local productivity of the cultivable land. The small strips of land, primitive tools of cultivation, prevalence of the three-field system and an inferior rotation system had contributed to low yields and recurrent harvest failures. The failure of the government to deal with it gave rise to voluntary organizations that began to provide relief. They proved the culpability and incompetence of the Tsarist regime, increasing public mistrust of the government. In fact, the 1891 famine crisis resulted in the whole of the society becoming politicized and radicalized. A public sphere and a civic society in opposition to the Tsar emerged. The conflict between the population and the regime had begun.
The Stylopin reforms were also introduced after the 1905 revolution to prevent such future events by ameliorating the peasants. The redemption dues were abolished, additional credit was provided to peasants to enable them to buy land and resettlement was facilitated on the vacant land in Siberia. The peasants were also encouraged to leave the village commune and establish separate holdings by helping them set up private farms. These reforms had both economic and political motives. The former was geared towards the development of commercial farming with more progressive methods, while, politically, these reforms aimed at the creation of a rich, prosperous and loyal group of peasants, who would support the tsar and thereby weaken the revolutionary fervor among the peasantry. However, the reforms were short-lived and in fact did not redistribute the assets of the landlords or the Church. So the grievances of the peasants as a whole continued. Also the poorer peasants received little benefit from the reforms. Instead, the number of landless peasants increased, increasing their migration to towns. On the whole, these reforms failed to achieve their objectives and further antagonized the peasantry.
Thus, the agrarian movement that had died down towards the end of 1907 was partially revived in 1908 and grew stronger during the following years. The struggle in the village was transferred to a considerable degree within the Commune. In fact, there was a great degree of solidarity among the peasants as a group, as is reflected in the major peasant movements of the time. Thus, the Commune survived and reasserted its power. When the revolution of 1917 reached the countryside, it played an important role in land seizures and violence against landlords.
Russia had witnessed the beginning of industrialization by the 2nd half of the 19th century through massive state intervention. In fact, from the 1880s, the state itself sponsored an upsurge in heavy industry. This was evident in case of the development of railways that connected far-flung parts of the country, certain industries like coal and mines and encouragement to foreign investment. However, the rapid development came with the horrors of early capitalism. There was a rise in the worker population as a result of which the few major cities of Russia like St. Petersburg and Moscow swelled with overcrowding. The shortage of accommodation pushed up the rents; the absence of labour laws resulted in poor working and living conditions that were characterized by lack of a proper water supply, sewage system of hygienic quarters. This was in addition to the low wages, long working hours, child labour and excessive exploitation of the workers by the employers. Moreover, since most the industries were run by foreigners or foreign capital, who had no concern for the workers and were only interested in making profits. The lack of state protection to the workers had given rise to a great deal of discontent among the workers.
An important aspect of the working class during this period was its overwhelming peasant character. According to Sheila Fitz Patrick, the numbers of urban workers were quite small as compared to the number of peasants, who left their villages for non-agricultural seasonal work each year. Hence, despite the Marxist view point that only an advanced modern working class under conditions of advanced industrial capitalism is likely to be revolutionary, the Russian working class between the periods from 1890 to 1914 was highly militant and revolutionary. According to Patrick, it was the peasant involvement in the working class movement that seems to have made it more revolutionary as the Russian peasantry had a strong tradition of violent and anarchic rebellion against landlords and officials, which was further intensified by the failure of the Act of 1861. Moreover, most of the peasants, who had migrated to the towns were young and moved by the emergent radical ideas of the time could not take to the discipline that comes with factory life.
A trade union movement had started as early as the 1870s. Urban centers saw considerable labor unrest from the early 1890s onwards. A succession of citywide St. Petersburg strikes in 1896-97 rocked the aloof stability of the royal family and the autocratic establishment with their size, scope, organization, leftist rhetoric, and considerable effect on Russian industry. Large-scale strikes were frequent and the workers showed considerable solidarity against management and state authority. For instance, in 1914 the Workers’ Strike movement in St. Petersburg assumed such threatening dimensions that some observers believed that the government could not take the risk of declaring general mobilization for war. Patrick has once again argued that these strikes saw demands that were both economic as well as political as it became evident during the 1905 revolution.
In reaction to the strikes, reforms again came grudgingly from above. But the efforts failed to please the enraged workers. The tsarist government was reluctant to improve the conditions of the workers through factory legislation. This resulted in the build-up of a large and discontented working class in the cities, which became one of the principal causes of the Tsar’s downfall. When this working class came into contact with revolutionary ideas and political parties it became one of the core elements of the movement that ultimately led to the establishment of the new regime. Thus, it can be seen that the economic conditions in Russia since the last quarter of 19thcentury that had led to a progressive deterioration in the lives of the peasants and the workers had given rise to a strong tradition of political unrest and protests, which had been constantly pecking at the existing autocratic regime.
The role of the workers and peasants in bringing about the Revolution of 1917 and in creating a revolutionary consciousness in Russia was undermined by a number of scholars, in particular the Soviet scholars. This was probably done to overemphasise the role played by Lenin and his Bolsheviks and to give currency to Lenin’s belief that the workers could not bring about a revolution on their own nor could they develop a revolutionary consciousness by themselves.
However, recent historiography has tended to question this earlier view point. Scholars like Laura Engelstein, Diane Koenker, and Steven Smith etc have tried to highlight that the Russia workers were not merely ‘irrational, poorly educated and incapable of independent participation in the political process. Engelstein has argued that the workers were not simply ‘malleable’ i.e. manipulable and manipulated by the radical intelligentsia and were in fact guiding their own course and destiny. Smith suggests that it was the struggles of the workers in the world of work, and the activities of work-based organizations, such as the factory committees and trade unions, which were of central importance in promoting revolutionary consciousness in 1917. However, the crisis in the countryside and the problems created by the First World War also played a part, along with agitation, in articulating revolutionary consciousness. It did not grow in a purely spontaneous fashion. Martin Malia has stated the workers cannot be seen as the “social base” of the Bolshevik Party but were its indispensible springboard to power.
Similar revisions have also been made regarding our understanding of the role played by the peasantry. Figes has argued that the peasantry far from being simply ‘immured in the idiocy of rural life’ had the ability to organize themselves, within the confines of a revitalized village commune, and on its own initiative and with its own goal in mind, to revolutionise the countryside. Allan Wildman has also spoken about the ‘peasants in uniform’ and stressed that the peasants were not simply pawns manipulated at will by the Bolsheviks but active agents with their own vision of land and peace and their own collective power to attain such results. Teddy Uldricks had argued that popular mobilization was a key process in a revolution that was confirmed by Russia in 1917. But instead of the elite mobilizing the masses, it was the masses that had actually mobilized the elitist parties.
It was the grievances of the workers that had led to the Revolution of 1905. On January 9, 1905, 150,000 striking workers organized a mass march on the Winter Palace of the Tsar, under the guidance of a popular priest Gapon, holding a petition for the Tsar to ask him to improve the conditions of the workers. Nicholas, however, wasn’t there and his troops fired upon the peacefully marching unarmed crowd including women and children. Over one hundred were killed and nearly five times as many were wounded. This day became known as Bloody Sunday. The massacre dramatically turned public opinion against the Tsar and his government, and primed the country for revolutionary action. There were strikes and protests in over 30-odd cities and urban workers also formed strike committees, which in September 1905 coordinated a nationwide general strike, originating with the Moscow printers. The strike led to the formation of the St. Petersburg soviet (council) in October, with other cities and towns following the model. It was to be an instrument to achieve power. After the revolution, soviets of workers, soldiers and even peasants were set up. These were representative to a certain extent, and came to dominate the lives of the workers in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. They led the worker movements there and played the leading role in the February Revolution. In fact, the Petrograd Soviet created a situation of Dual Power after the fall of Tsarism, till the Provisional Government was formed.
The Revolution also gradually spread to the countryside, as disgruntled peasants organized rent strikes to force the landowners to increase their wages as labourers. They soon began seizing and destroying property of the landlords across the country. The revolution of 1905 saw approximately 7000 incidents of violence against the landlords despite the fact that its influence had been decreasing. Such acts of violence in the countryside and the urban areas led to a great deal of repression being unleashed by the Tsar on these rebelling elements to put the movement down. However, this revolution had made the Tsar realize the importance of granting certain reforms and thus, the 1905 revolution had been brought to an end by a combination of coercion and concessions. However, as we shall see later these reforms had failed to bring about any significant change or satisfy the masses.
As for the political reasons for the Revolution of 1917 are concerned, many scholars have pointed to the autocratic nature of the Tsar being a responsible factor. Ever since the Romanov dynasty was established the Tsar had ruled over the Russian Empire on the premise that he had a divine right to rule over the Russians and thus, exercised limitless powers. The Russian Empire was ruled by the personal will of the tsar, who, according to Warren Walsh ‘could override laws, reverse judicial or other decisions and generally interfere with administration’. The only exception to this was Peter Romanov, who had stood for liberal reforms but all other Tsars had tried to preserve the autocratic nature of their rule by introducing more reactionary measures like empowering their officials with emergency powers to deal with severe situations when public order was threatened, press regulations curbing the freedom of press, setting up of orthodox parish schools and abolishing the autonomy of universities and students’ organizations. There was no rule of law or constitutional measures to restrict the activities of the Tsar. Such trends had become even more stringent and prevalent during the reign of Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II, whose reign saw the end of the Romanov dynasty. In fact the reigns of these two rulers are often described as the period of counter-reforms because they not only rejected further reforms but also reversed the minor reform measures that had been introduced during the previous regimes. Thus, the revolutionary fervor that had been gaining ground in Russia was further fanned by the denial of basic political reforms like the creation of political parties, trade unions and a constitution.
It is in this regard that the concessions granted after the Revolution of 1905 become extremely important. The magnitude of the revolution had compelled Nicholas II to give in and make concessions. Nicholas issued his October Manifesto, promising to create an elected legislative body (elected quite unequally, based on restricted suffrage), to grant civil and religious liberties, and to legalize the organization of unions and political parties. But this was too little, too late especially as it managed to placate only a small band of moderates. In 1906, the first State Duma was established. But it had limited powers as it was elected on a restricted franchise. But more importantly it was to act only as a consultative body and thus, could not enact the reforms that the rebels most cherished. Also, it could be dissolved by the Tsar as and when he pleased. Moreover, after the war with Japan was over, Nicholas attempted to reverse the new freedoms, and his government became more reactionary than ever. Popular discontent gained strength, and Nicholas countered it with increased repression, maintaining control but worsening relations with the population. According to Patrick, this was a repetitive pattern in the history of the Russian Tsars as they were not willing to grant reforms that could dilute their authority.
Tsar Nicholas II, although tried to wield the power of an autocrat and absolute monarch was incompetent as a leader let alone as the Tsar. Moreover, he was increasingly under the influence of his wife, Tsarina Alexandria, who because of her German influence was suspected of Germanophilia during WW1. Moreover, the fact that she was dependent on the highly unpopular Rasputin made matters worse as it worsened the relations of the Crown with the court, the nobility, the church and the army. By the time Rasputin was expelled in 1916, the Romanov dynasty was on the verge of collapse. By 1917, he had managed to ensure his isolation from virtually all sections of the Russian society. His failures to improve to conditions of the peasants and the workers have already been discussed above. Moreover, Bloody Sunday had destroyed the myth of the Good Tsar among the peasants and the workers, which had sustained the regime through the centuries leading to their discontent being directed against the Tsar and not just the aristocracy. Another important breach of relations of the Romanov regime was with the military.
For the country’s military leaders, the root of the problem lay in the army’s dismal record in the 19th century, which many of them blamed on the policies of the government. This seems to have reached its climax with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which was a big blow to the prestige of Russia as a military power as she suffered the humiliation of being the first European power to be defeated by an Asian opponent. The war was also a blow to the credibility of the Tsar and the Russian State and it dissolved the tenuous support held by Nicholas’ already unpopular government. Moreover, the army also gradually lost its place at the top of government spending priorities as resources were diverted towards the modernization of the economy. This treatment of the army provoked growing resentment among Russia’s military elite. Officers dedicated to the modernization of the armed services were bitterly critical of the government and opposed the appointment of aristocrats loyal to the Tsar to the top command posts. Their grievances forced them into politics. While arguing for increased spending on the army and the navy, they also wanted military reforms, including the transfer of certain controls from the court to the Duma and the government. Slowly but surely, the Tsar was losing his authority over his military elite, which was to have a disastrous effect when the revolution broke out.
Another important factor that is linked with the growing autocracy of the tsars is that of the suppression of the nationalist aspirations of the various nationalities that resided within the vast Russian Empire. Russia had been home to a large number of non-Russian nationalities like Poles, Finns, Estonians, Lithuanians, Jews, Tartars, Germans, Georgians etc Since the reign of Alexander III there had been a growing Russification of the Empire, wherein the Tsars not only refused to equate them with the Russians but also took deliberate steps to impose the Russian language, culture, education and religion upon them to extent of suppressing their own culture. According to many scholars, these measures were a direct response to the growing nationalist sentiments among these groups and a desire on the part of the tsar to keep all his subjects- Russian and non-Russian under control. However, the repressive measures adopted by the Tsar during WW1 antagonized the non-Russian people and posed a constant threat to the empire. While, the nationalist movements that arose during the latter years of Nicholas’ reign may not have been a direct cause for the toppling of his regime, the old regime was weakened by the growth of nationalist aspirations during the decades of gradual decline which led to its final downfall.
This brings us to the question of the impact of WW1 on Russia, which according to many formed the immediate background to the February Revolution of 1917. On the eve of WW1, Russia was in the midst of a profound social and political crisis. The peasants and the workers were still unhappy as the reform measures had failed to bring about a significant change in their life. Thus, there had been a resurgence of strikes post-1905 that were more militant in nature and the demands for political reforms had also increased steadily. Moreover, as already seen above the relations of the Crown with its traditional support base had been breached for a number of reasons. Thus, in such a situation, the disastrous consequences of the First World War on Russia proved to be the final straw, leading to the downfall of the Tsar.
Russia was quite unprepared for such a long war, and on such a large-scale. The economy was unable to cope with the strain and soon there was complete physical breakdown of the system. Agricultural production fell and land under cultivation was reduced by a fifth. More than 80% of the factories were taken over to supply war needs. But there was no rise in production because the new labour force, recruited from farms, was unused to factory work. Skilled workers were replaced by unskilled. Salaries did not keep up with the prices, because the influx of workers from the countryside kept wages down. Output fell by about 30%. Industry was no longer able to take care of civilian requirements and produce consumer goods. The overloaded transport proved incapable of supplying factories with the necessary quantity of fuel and raw material. The war not only swallowed up the whole current national income, but seriously began to cut into the basic capital of the country. Moreover, there was a severe shortage of labour as most of the peasants and workers were forcefully conscripted into the army to fight for Russia in the War. Thus the back of the Russian economy was broken. There were shortages of essential items like fuel in cities as well. There was also no proper ‘exchange’ between the towns and the countryside. Unable to buy industrial products, the peasants tended to ‘hold back’, which led to food shortages. This led to rationing and black marketing in the urban areas. People began to move to the countryside in search of food, leading to chaos and a collapse of the production system.
This crisis offset another series of strikes, which by 1916 had exploded on an unprecedented scale. While its roots lay in economic cause, i.e., the shortages of food and rising prices, but three-quarters of the strikes were in opposition to the autocracy and the war. In the winter of 1916, food and fuel supplies to towns fell drastically even though the urban population continued to increase. There was shortage of housing and people lived in miserable conditions. The decline in urban and military food supply triggered the mass discontent of the early months of 1917, even among middle classes.
As the war progressed the military weakness of Russia came to the forefront. The constant war reversals and increasing casualties along with the general atmosphere of incompetence shook the faith of the people in the regime. Russia had entered the war with a weak arms industry and relatively poor communications. The transport network (railways) could not cope with the massive deliveries of munitions, food, clothing and medical care to the fronts. There was lack of real pre-war planning. Moreover, the Russian army was formed predominantly of conscripted peasants. This created an army of ‘peasants in uniform’ that came to be characterized by poor training and incompetence. This along with corruption at the high levels of government and the army translated into severe military losses, which touched nearly 7 million by the end of the war. The soldiers had grown weary of war and wanted peace, leading to the development of a revolutionary mentality. The army was also concerned about the developments in the countryside, since most of the soldiers were peasants. There was a food crisis in the villages, due to insufficient labour and inadequate supply of urban goods for the consumption of the peasants. Returning workers from the cities added to the resource crisis. There was an expectation of dramatic change that might lead to redistribution of land. If so, the peasants in the army also wanted to be there at this time, so that they too could get a share. This led to desertions in the army, which grew after the land seizures of 1917.
One must finally turn our attention towards the intellectual current and the revolutionary ideas that helped in bringing about the revolution, with a special emphasis on the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin, before we conclude our discussion on the factors that led to the outbreak of the revolution. The middle-class and the Russian intelligentsia, i.e., students, writers, professionals etc. were isolated from official Russia by its politics and from peasant Russia by its education. But they were acutely conscious of their wealth and privilege, and this ‘guilt’ led them to the revolution. They formed a self-image as the righteous champions of the ‘people’s cause’ and felt that it was their duty to educate the whole of the society. The newly risen middle class comprising of professionals like doctors, engineers, lawyers etc may not have been active revolutionaries themselves but had inherited enough of the old intelligentsia tradition to feel sympathy and respect for the committed revolutionaries and lack of sympathy for the regime. Thus, the rise of these new groups had created a favourable environment for the revolutionary ideas to flourish.
The second half of the 19th century in Russia had witnessed significant changes in the thinking process of the Russian intellectuals. The influence of German idealistic philosophy and romanticism diminished and a great deal of realism and trends of socialism had emerged in the art and literature of this period, which had made the approach of the intellectuals more radical and in tune with the daily concerns of the people. The leading proponents of such a trend were writers like Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Nicholas Chernyshevsky etc Bellinsky was the one, who had advocated a new and tremendously influential method of literary criticism that critiqued the existing situation and simultaneously carried a progressive message that was essential for a better existence. Herzen, who was Bellinsky’s heir supported the cause of emancipation, the rights of the individual and self-governance. Chernyshevsky advocated the equality of women, education for the common people and cooperative labour in his work “What Is To Be Done?” which had become a bible for future revolutionaries like Lenin. Similarly, there were other prominent authors like Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev etc who through their writings provided a strong critique about the existing autocracy, serfdom, economic conditions and other issues that caused grievances to the people. These were productive works as they also provided solutions to the existing problems and advocated means for a better existence. In fact, this medium of literary criticism and the environment that it had created had become such a powerful weapon against the autocracy that strict and repressive measures were taken by the regime to ban such works.
The role of the intelligentsia, however, has been questioned by a number of scholars in recent years. For instance, Pipes has argued that in the 1890s the intelligentsia had successful started workers’ educational circles and a rudimentary form of a revolutionary party but in the face of repressive police force they abandoned the revolutionary movement, leaving the workers and peasants to face the brunt of the police action. This had caused a great deal of antagonism among the workers provoking them into taking control of their movement. Gramsci has also argued that these intellectuals once again deserted the revolutionary cause when faced with coercion after the 1905 Revolution. However, by this time the intellectual current had had a profound impact on the workers enabling them to take measures into their own hands. Thus, these scholars have refused to give credit to the intelligentsia for having a direct impact on the Revolution.
This was the period when a number of political groups and parties were being formed advocating radical and revolutionary ideas that also played a major role at this point of time. Populism was the mainstream of Russian radical thought during the 1860s to the 1880s that essentially advocated the view that industrialization and capitalism should be avoided at all costs since it had led to the Human degradation, impoverishment of the masses and the destruction of the social fabric in the west. The populists wished to save the Russian peasants’ traditional form of village organization, the commune from the ravages of capitalism as they believed that through the commune, which was an egalitarian institution Russia might find a separate path to socialism. In the early 1870s, the idealization of the peasantry had encouraged the spontaneous mass movement- the ‘going to the people’ of 1873-74, in which thousands of students and members of the intelligentsia left the cities to go to villages with the hope of enlightening them or conducting revolutionary organization and propaganda. However, such movements lacked a proper direction and failed to achieve anything significant.
There was an upsurge of revolutionary terrorism in the late 1870s, which was motivated partly by the populist desperate hope that a well-placed blow might destroy the whole superstructure of the regime and partly by the frustration caused by the failures of the reforms initiated by the Tsar. Micheal Bakunin has often been called the ‘father of Nihilism and apostle of anarchy’ as he passionately advocated the destruction of the existing institutions as he found them to be flawed. Initially, Nihilism had been advocated merely as a philosophy to negate anything based on tradition or superstition but it soon came to acquire a more practical aspect, which was of terrorism. The aim of these revolutionaries were to attack the officials, bureaucracy and any other figure associated with the regime and they believed that through their physical annihilation they would be able to completely overthrow the regime. Their most daring act was the assassination of the Tsar Alexander I in 1881. However, this instead of having the desired consequences provoked the autocracy into taking even more repressive measures in order to suppress such revolutionaries.
While, this populist tradition may not have found much success or support among the masses or the other radicals, it had left behind its legacy in the form of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (1901), whose most noted leader was Victor Chernov. This party was committed to the defense of the peasants’ interests, advocated the overthrow of the existing tsarist order, the establishment of a classless socialist society. The Socialist Revolutionaries indulged in terrorist activities taking cue from the earlier organizations of this type and murdered important officials. While, they had humanitarian intentions as well their terrorist activities seems to have sidelined their other achievements. However, they seem to have given a lot of inspiration to a number of student organizations, who disgusted with the oppressive nature of the regime converted the universities into centers of open and bitter hostilities. However, it was in the post-1905 period that this party was torn about by factionalism.
It was in the 1880s, that the Marxists emerged as a distinct group within the Russian intelligentsia, repudiating the utopian idealism, terrorist tactics and peasant orientation that had previously characterized the revolutionary movement. The Marxists led by Georgii Plekhanov argued that capitalism was inevitable in Russia argued that capitalism constituted the only path towards socialism and that the industrial proletariat produced by capitalist development was the only class capable of bringing about a true socialist revolution. They chose the urban working class as their base of support, which distinguished them from the populists and also from the liberals, who were trying to bring about a bourgeoisie revolution. The liberals were another important faction that had emerged from the Marxists, who stood for a ‘liberal reform movement’. This faction was headed by Petr Struve, who had lost interest in the ultimate goal of the socialist revolution and was advocating the modernization of the country.
Initially the Marxists had restricted themselves to educating the workers. This had a significant impact on them as stated by Patrick, who argued that this education helped the workers to imbibe a modern, urban sense of the possibility of ‘bettering themselves’. However, the Marxists soon organized themselves into the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (1898) and were more directly involved with political labour organization, strikes and in the 1905 revolution. According to Patrick, by 1914 the party had ceased to be an elitist group of intellectuals and had actually been converted into a working class movement.
However, this was no longer a unified organization as during the Second Congress (1903) the RSDLP was split into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The latter that included Plekhanov, Trotsky and Martov emerged as the more orthodox in their Marxism. They were less inclined to force the pace of events towards revolution and less interested in creating a tightly-organised and disciplined revolutionary party. By 1914, they had in fact lost the support of the working class in Russia to the Bolsheviks as they had become more militant and thus, wanted to be with a more revolutionary party.
The Bolsheviks were led by Lenin, who was to ultimately lead the October Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks came to represent a small, tightly-knit organization that was characterized by a high degree of commitment and ideological unity. The Bolsheviks and their organization was defined to a large extent by Lenin’s ideas and personality. Lenin in his pamphlet “What is to be Done?” had laid down the blueprint of the Communist Party that was to seize power after 1917. In this pamphlet he had rejected the notion of ‘Economism’, which essentially argued that political protests should be left to the bourgeoisie, while the workers should be roused only to demand economic reforms. However, Lenin argued that the spontaneous struggles of the workers for the improvement of wages and working conditions could only generate a ‘Trade-Union’ consciousness i.e., it may itself realize the necessity for combining in unions, for fighting against the employers to strive only for those concessions that may improve their living conditions. He believed that the workers left to themselves would not be able to develop into a class; develop a sufficiently strong revolutionary character or play a significant political role. Lenin wanted the educated people to guide the workers on the path of political consciousness. This, according to him, could be achieved only through a coherent, strictly controlled party of dedicated professional revolutionaries as a basic necessity for a revolution. Thus, for him the chief ingredients for a revolutionary party were strict centralization, discipline and ideological unity. What differentiated Lenin from the other Russian Marxists was his active work towards bringing about a Proletariat revolution as opposed to merely predicting one in the future. However, it should be interesting to note that Lenin was in exile for a long period of time and indulged more in writing books, articles and pamphlets denouncing the Russian regime than in organizing the revolution in Russia. Thus, many scholars have said that Lenin up to the February Revolution was preparing himself for the Revolution that was to come in October.
The factors mentioned above had created an environment that was ripe for a revolution to take place, which broke out eventually in February. The February Revolution started when a group of women seized the opportunity of International Women’s Day to stage bread riots throughout the capital, breaking into bakeries, taking bread, and leaving only the amount of money they thought the stores deserved. This soon got transformed into a general strike. As more and more units of the Petrograd garrison defected to the side of the revolutionaries, the united workers and soldiers took control of the capital, culminating in the arrest and imprisonment of Tsar Nicholas II’s ministers of government on February 28. With his government all but disintegrated, Nicholas tried to regain power by dissolving the Duma and reasserting his throne. But at the urging of his generals and allied Duma politicians, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne on March 3, 1917 in favour of his brother, who refused, ending over three centuries of uninterrupted Romanov rule in the Russian Empire.
Once the Monarchy was ended it was decided that the country’s future form of governance would be decided by a constituent assembly and in the meantime a ‘Provisional Government’ was to run the country. However, this came to be a highly unpopular body as it derived its legitimacy from the last duma, which itself was elected on a limited and restricted franchise. The second important body that exercised power was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which although not established legally represented the revolutionary elements and was thus more popular than the Provisional Government. The purpose of the Soviet, dominated by the moderate socialists was to keep a check on the Bourgeoisie Provisional Government. This dual system of government was unable to achieve anything significant as they differed on important issues and were constantly trying to seize power from the other body. Thus, the relations between the two factions were quarrelsome and intense. Moreover, the new system did not end the war, land reforms were not enacted, the economy was still in a rut and the working conditions of the workers were not improved. As a result, the resentment and discontent among the workers and peasants had increased manifold and this period saw a large number of strikes and demonstrations all demanding an end to the Provisional Government as it was dominated by the Bourgeoisie. It was this rising discontent among the peasants and the increasingly militant mood of the workers that was exploited by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin in the summer of 1917.
Lenin had been in exile when the February Revolution had taken place. He returned to Russia in April and his appraisal of the political situation, known to history as the April Theses was belligerent and uncompromising. He condemned the existing system of governance and declared that no support should be given to the Provisional Government. He was already looking forward to the next stage of the revolution viz. the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat. He viewed the soviets- under revitalized revolutionary leadership- as the key institution in bringing about this transfer of power. Other important revolutionary trends in his theses were: (1) ‘peace’- withdrawal of Russia from the war and the overthrow of capital, without which saw a withdrawal would not be possible; (2) ‘land’- the confiscation of the landowner’s estates and their redistribution by the peasants themselves and (3) ‘Bread’. While, the Bolsheviks did not have a majority in the Soviet to be able to put this manifesto into action, they were gaining popularity in particular at the grass-root level among the workers, soldiers and sailors, while, the coalition socialists were losing their support base.
The situation for the Bolsheviks seemed to have improved more around mid-June 1917, when a Russian offensive against Germany resulted in an abysmal failure. This further increased the desertion from the army and increased the gap between the Government and the military leaders. As Patrick points out, the provisional government was in deeper problems and its fall seemed almost inevitable. A coup by Kornilov failed due to the quick actions of the Petrograd workers, who rushed to the rescue of the Provisional Government. However, the poor handling of the affair by Kerensky had furthered weakened the position of the government, while, at the same time there was an upsurge in the support for the Bolsheviks as the coup had been resisted by the workers at the grass root levels. While, the Bolsheviks had played no direct role in resisting this coup the fact that it was the only party not compromised by coalitions with the Bourgeoisie or any connection with the regime that was formed after the February Revolution had made it extremely popular. In fact, by end August it had gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet.
Lenin believed that the stage for an armed insurrection had arrived and urged his party members to prepare for an armed insurrection. Despite some serious opposition to such armed insurrection from within the Bolshevik party itself, the October Coup was actually pulled off. It was on October 25ththat the Winter Palace was seized with which the Bolsheviks were able to come to power.
Both Soviet and western historiographical trends have glorified the role of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party that was formed by him in bringing about the October Revolution. Without the party, the so called vanguard of the proletariat, the workers and the common people involved in the revolution would have failed to develop the political consciousness that was necessary to carry out a radical revolution. The Soviet attempt to glorify his role is not surprising as it was used by the Bolshevik-Communists to legitimize the monopolization of power by Lenin after 1917. The only viable solution was to stress upon the leading role played by the party in bringing about this transfer of power. The party is depicted as the mythical or archetypal Leninist party: tightly knit, well organized and highly disciplined. Moreover, the Lenin of this type of historiography also assumed the status of a demigod, whose leadership of the Bolshevik Party was infallible. For instance, many of the Soviet scholars asserted that Lenin alone was capable of determining what the correct time for launching an armed insurrection was and when it was the correct time to restrain the use of force. Moreover, the April theses were regarded as the most significant ideological pillar of the Bolshevik Party that ensured its success. Thus, it would sufficient to say that according to the Soviet historiography- No Lenin, no October Revolution!
The early Western perception of Lenin was quite similar. For instance, John Marot has rejected the revisionist view point of a deepening economic crisis in urban Russia that may have pushed the workers and peasantry into a second revolution in October. He instead laid emphasis on the political manifesto of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and the political focus that they provided to satisfy the material wants of the workers, soldiers and peasant by linking them to the establishment of the Soviet power.
However, William Chase and John Getty have challenged this notion claiming that the western depiction of Lenin and the Bolsheviks were based on ignorance and a limited approach to history that was based on focusing exclusively on the prominent personalities for whom evidence and information was easily available. This naturally led to the neglect of the large-scale role played by the workers, peasants and the common people. Chase and Getty considered the Bolshevik Revolution to be illegitimate, in which the Bolshevik party had dispersed the constituent assembly by force and established their rule illegally. Thus, for them the Bolshevik Revolution was an aberration in Russian history. A number of other historians have also challenged the stereotypical image of Lenin portrayed by the Soviet historians. For instance, Robert Service has argued that Lenin failed to create the pressures for radical ‘socio-political and economic change in Russia’. According to Service, this change was a product of war-weariness, industrial decline and unemployment, food shortage and peasant impatience for land reform. In fact, Lenin himself had made a number of disastrous political interventions that threatened the very existence of his party. Thus, according to Service, Lenin was no infallible demigod. Similarly, Chase and Getty have argued that Lenin’s role should not be overemphasized as his party had just used their superior military and organizational power to exploit the popular resentments against a socially and politically estranged Provisional Government. Richard Pipes has stated that the October Revolution should not be looked upon as a popular uprising from below as the Bolshevik Party had come to power with no popular mandate. Leszek Kolakowski has categorized the rise of the Bolshevik Party to power as an ‘accident’ as they were able to manipulate a spontaneous mass movement in their favour to establish its dictatorship. Alexander Rabinowitch has argued that the Bolshevik Party was far from the monolithic, well-disciplined and well-organised structure that it is made out to be and in many instances the leadership lagged behind rank and file aspirations.
Thus, to conclude, one can see that the Bolshevik Revolution was not an aberration in the history of Russia nor did it develop overnight. All was not well within the Russia Empire for a long time and it was a combination of war-weariness, political oppression, economic hardships in the countryside and urban towns and a number of other factors had brought about the overthrow of the Autocratic Tsarist regime. However, it was the disillusion with the dual system of governance and the parties associated with it created a favourable environment for the Bolsheviks to exploit, who adopted its policies to correspond with the popular demands. It was with their seizure of power that a new era had started in the history of Russia and the world.
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