In October 1917 the working class took power in Russia. Although this is often described as an undemocratic coup, Tubeworker believes that democracy was at the heart of the events that brought the working class to power in 1917. How did they do it?
In 1917 Russia was still an autocracy ruled over by a monarch, the Tsar. In contrast, the capitalist class and the ruling regime were weak. The Tsar was unpopular. The peasants wanted land. The people were war-weary. Russia’s participation in World War One had cost around 3.6 million soldiers’ lives by late 1916.
The February Revolution
In late February 1917, women in the capital, Petrograd, protested against food queues and sparked strikes that demanded, "down with autocracy" and "down with the war". These grew into a general strike. Thousands of workers demonstrated in the streets. When asked to shoot the demonstrators, the troops rebelled and shot their officers. With the state forces refusing to cooperate the Tsar was vulnerable. He resigned on 2 March.
The soviets and worker's democracy
During the last days of the February revolution, socialists put a call out for a soviet to be formed in Petrograd. Soviets were councils, elected by workers, soldiers and peasants. Our closest equivalent today, on a much smaller scale, might be a union branch or strike committee. Soviets were places of debate and democratic decision-making and, ultimately, of power. By the end of March 1917 the Petrograd soviet had almost 3,000 delegates.
By October 1917 there were 1,429 across Russia. In 1917, workplace democracy flourished. Workers set up factory committees that organised to "democratise factory life". Workers agitated for control over production. They challenged the dictator-like power that bosses wield in capitalist workplaces: in some places workers took decisions, such as hiring and firing, normally made exclusively by management. Participation in strikes soared; 2.4 million workers struck between March and October.
The Provisional Government
The February revolution handed political power to a Provisional Government, which in many ways continued the old regime. It was never elected. It maintained Russia’s participation in World War One. In reality, the Petrograd soviet held power in the capital because it controlled the barracks and the troops. In the Summer, the government asked General Kornilov, military commander in chief, to enforce stability by introducing martial law in Petrograd.
However, in late August, Kornilov himself launched a military coup against the government with the aim of undoing the February Revolution. Armed workers and soldiers defeated Kornilov’s attempted coup. The soviets created the "committee for struggle against the counter-revolution". Workers in factories formed "fighting detachments". Telegraph workers prevented leaders in Petrograd from communicating with the advancing troops. Rail workers stopped trains, and ripped up tracks to block communication.
The Bolsheviks were one of many factions/parties who participated in political debate and activity. They stood in elections to be delegates in the soviets. They published newspapers and industrial bulletins (like Tubeworker!) and submitted motions to the soviets so that their ideas could be debated.
The October revolution
The Bolsheviks had gained popularity by playing a prominent role in defeating Kornilov. Their call for a revolution was winning support. In late September the Bolsheviks won leadership of the Petrograd Soviet. By October, the Bolsheviks were elected leaders in the majority of workers' soviets of most industrial cities and in most soldiers' soviets in garrison towns.
On 24 October pro-soviet soldiers took control of Petrograd’s key roads and bridges. The capital effectively passed into the hands of the soldiers who were defending their soviets. The government could only find a handful of troops willing to serve it. On 25 October government leader, Kerensky, fled and the October insurrection defeated the Provisional Government. The workers' government that came out of the October revolution had a Bolshevik majority. In its first days it delivered what the Provisional Government had avoided for eight months: land to the peasants and an end to the war.
Further decrees on workers' rights, women's rights, and the rights of oppressed nationalities followed. The working class, led by the Bolsheviks, was in charge.
What went wrong?
In conditions of war and social backwardness, a faction within the Bolsheviks and wider society around Joseph Stalin arose to impose a barbaric, totalitarian social system that snuffed out the democratic promise of 1917. Tubeworker believes that Stalinism represented the overthrow of the Russian Revolution, rather than its continuation. It was not an inevitable outcome of 1917, and does not invalidate the democratic character of October 1917 and the government it installed.