In January 1917, the world was in flames amid the barbarism of the first capitalist world war. Yet within months, the Russian revolutionary socialist Vladimir Lenin was the elected head of the first democratic workers’ government in history.
Today, the capitalists speak in fear of the coming ‘pitchforks’ – the billions-strong global working class seeking an end to the crisis-ridden profit system. or those looking for ideas and a way forward, the revolutionary life of Lenin, who died 100 years ago on 21 January, is rich with inspiring lessons for socialist struggle today.
First workers’ state
The victory of the working class and poor peasants in the 1917 October Revolution, with the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and Leon Trotsky, remains the greatest event in human history. It liberated millions from the reactionary, feudal yoke of Tsarist Russia, and brought an end to the slaughter of 3.6 million Russians, out of a total of 20 million dead in World War One.
It was the first workers’ government. And in its first years the most democratic form of government in history, formed by the soviets or workers’ councils.
The soviets were based on the election of workers’ delegates from the factories to local and regional councils, and to an all-Russian council. Delegates were subject to recall and only paid the average wage of the workers they represented. Its executive powers oversaw the abolition of capitalism and the first steps towards the development of a socialist planned economy.
As Lenin foresaw, the Russian revolution was the opening chapter of world revolution that swept across Europe and the world in the following months and years. Lenin died in 1924, aged just 53, but by that time the new revolutionary Communist International, formed in 1919, was to have the support of millions of workers across all continents.
The October victory was based on Lenin’s two key foundations: confidence in the working class as the decisive force to overthrow capitalism, and the need to form mass revolutionary parties, rooted in the working class, with a clear programme to achieve workers’ power.
Victory was not an accident nor was it inevitable. Lenin was politically developed by the conditions that surrounded him – a reactionary feudal Tsarist dictatorship and an emerging working class, forged in the rapid development of industry in Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
Lenin’s historic leading role included forming the first all-Russian workers’ party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), through the strikes and workers’ struggles of that period.
Lenin’s ideas were firmly based on Marxist ideas, the ideas of scientific socialism. His writings explained the class nature of capitalist society from the point of view of the working class; producing workers’ newspapers to report on the living struggle of the working class, and also providing a clear programme for workers to fight for the socialist transformation of society; and building a party based on these ideas.
While these ideas ultimately triumphed in October 1917, during the period from 1903 to 1917 Lenin and his co-thinkers were in constant debate over how the revolution would unfold, and which forces would lead the overthrow of Tsarism.
Would it be the liberal capitalists, placing themselves at the head of the workers’ struggles, in alliance with the poor peasants; limiting the revolution to carrying through the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks, ie ending feudalism, an elected national parliament, land reform, etc?
Or, would the workers push aside the capitalist class and lead the peasants in a revolutionary government that would begin the socialist transformation of society?
Lenin, in the numerous debates during the pre-revolution period, attempted to navigate a narrow path between the opportunists, who looked for an easier route to reforming capitalism, and ultra-lefts who turned their back on the patient tasks to win the masses, such as standing socialist candidates in the limited electoral bodies, Dumas, that Tsarism was to concede in the course of the struggle.
The battle for clear ideas led to splits and mergers in the workers’ movement. The break between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the RSDLP occurred first in outline in 1903, then became formalised in 1912. This split between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ party members was the result of the differences that emerged in the heat of struggle and revolution – first in the 1905 revolution (the ‘dress rehearsal’ for 1917 as Lenin described it), and again through the two revolutions of 1917.
While Lenin and the Bolsheviks set a clear course towards the working class, the Mensheviks were to take a reformist road, seeking support from the weak, liberal, capitalist elite.
From the outset, Lenin understood that correct ideas were not enough. Enormous determination, courage and sacrifices were necessary.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks faced a brutal, repressive Tsarist state machine that persecuted the workers’ movement, and those seeking to establish independent political organisations.
Enormous sacrifices were made by hundreds of party workers, its ‘cadre’, in establishing the network of links between the embryonic groups and party cells, the circulation of papers, and the vital collection of funds. Lenin fought for a professional, combative party rooted in the working class.
The party ‘cadre’, a French word for frame, was the structure around which the party would grow: a party not only built through struggle, but out of intense democratic debate and discussion, through which decisions could be reached in party congresses, and then collective action agreed upon.
These methods of ‘democratic centralism’ were the key to building a strong force that would not weaken or compromise under the pressure of the revolutionary events that were to follow.
The infant RSDLP organisation was quickly tested by the revolution of 1905. The deep-rooted anger of the workers rose in a mass demonstration of over 400,000 in Tsarist Russia’s capital St Petersburg. This was suppressed brutally by the Tsar, on Bloody Sunday, 22 January.
Protesting at the slave conditions in the factories of long hours and poverty wages, workers demanded an eight-hour day, trade union rights, democratic elections to a constituent assembly, and an end to the economic crisis brought about by the war with Japan.
Thousands of demonstrators were killed and injured. This opened up a revolutionary crisis in society that put to the test all political ideas and methods, and confirmed, in general, the correctness of Lenin’s ideas and strategy.
The working class, despite being a small minority of the population, came together as the only cohesive class in society, capable of uniting those opposed to the autocracy, and able to mobilise behind it the radicalised middle classes and the mass of the poor peasants.
The huge sweep of the revolution saw a spontaneous strike movement develop that led to a general strike in St Petersburg in November.
This tested revolutionaries with an opportunity to find the road to the masses and win their support. Lenin had to press his small forces to turn out and open the door of the party to the working class, especially young workers.
The Bolsheviks, with small resources, saw their newspaper, Vyperod (Forward), rise to a circulation of 50,000 by December 1905. Other revolutionaries came to the fore in this period, notably Leon Trotsky, whose newspaper was to reach a circulation of 500,000. With Trotsky elected as president of the powerful St Petersburg Soviet, Lenin commented: “Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work.”
The soviets were forged by the workers themselves in the course of their uprising, bringing together elected strikers from the factories to democratically organise the struggle. Lenin, still in exile, was quick to recognise the soviets’ potential, describing them as a “provisional revolutionary government.”
But despite the heroic efforts of the working class, and the courageous struggle of the Bolsheviks to point the way forward with their programme, by December 1905 the revolutionary energy of the urban industrial masses had peaked before support for an all-Russian insurrection had matured.
Despite this, the events of 1905 had demonstrated in a few short months how a small party was able to become a mass force, through its party cadre, to draw in the most combative leaders from the working class and organise them into a cohesive political movement that would be decisive in the revolution of 1917.
Everything that Lenin had prepared, the programme, the party apparatus and its paper, now proved to be decisive in assembling the forces and leadership that offered the working class and poor peasants a route to victory.
While Lenin’s forces were tiny, given the scale of the task, the clarity of ideas and the programme attracted the support of the most class-conscious workers, first in their hundreds, then more rapidly in their thousands.
Following the mass strikes and demonstrations of February 1917, the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy, and the establishment of a provisional government headed by the capitalists, Lenin recognised that the only basis for ending the crisis of war, the starvation of the masses, and the resolution of the land question for the mass of toiling peasants, was to establish a workers’ government.
This had to be based on the soviets – workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils thrown up by a renewed revolutionary wave engulfing the whole of society. A soviet government would begin the socialist tasks of transforming society.
Lenin recognised that without this victory the revolution in Russia would be smashed under the iron heel of Tsarist counterrevolution, assisted by the capitalists who feared the revolutionary working class more than Tsarism.
Others in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party inside Russia, notably Stalin and Kamenev, mistakenly backed the soviets’ conditional support for the new provisional government headed by Kerensky (as did the Mensheviks). From his exile in Switzerland, a furious Lenin demanded of the Bolsheviks: “Our tactics: absolute distrust, no support for the new government, suspect Kerensky above all, arming of the proletariat the only guarantee…”
Lenin, returning from exile in April, stood in a minority within the Bolshevik Party, but went to the ranks of the party, to the worker Bolsheviks, and won them to his position, with his short ten-point programme, The April Theses.
Lenin’s goal was clear and explicit: “No support for the provisional government, for a republic of soviet workers’, labourers’ and peasants’ deputies, nationalisation of all lands, land to be disposed to the peasants, nationalise the banks, bring social production and distribution of products at once under the control of the soviets, for a new international.”
This programme, and the organised forces in the Bolshevik Party, were the decisive, ‘subjective factor’ in ensuring victory to the revolutionary power of the workers. Lenin drew others towards him, all those genuine revolutionaries seeking a route to workers’ power.
The clarifying of ideas, of a clear programme in the white heat of revolutionary events, brought Trotsky, with his supporters organised in the Mezhraiontsy, together with Lenin in the same party. They were agreed on the central role of the working class and the socialist tasks of the revolution.
Still, the door to revolution was obstructed by brutal repression. Here the great strength of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party became clear. Steeled in struggle, their militant leaders in the factories and soldiers’ garrisons played a decisive part in mobilising mass support to the side of the revolution. A majority in the factories, workers’ districts, and army and naval garrisons were won to the side of the revolution, reflected in their overwhelming majorities in soviets across Russia.
By October 1917, Tsarism and the capitalist forces around the provisional government had evaporated. They were quickly dispersed by the revolutionary Red Guards, with barely a shot fired in St Petersburg.
News of the world’s first workers’ government travelled swiftly around the world, with revolutions unfolding in Germany 1918-23, Hungary 1919, Italy 1920 and later the 1926 general strike in Britain, and China in 1927-29.
Lenin’s death came at a critical period. Soviet Russia, isolated after the defeat of the aborted 1923 German revolution, impacted by the loss of many workers’ leaders in the civil war, struggling under a war-devastated backward economy with limited resources, created the conditions of retreat. A bureaucracy emerged that was ultimately to triumph under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.
Stalin, once in control of party and state, justified an end to world revolution with his counter-revolutionary ideas of ‘socialism in one country’, and the brutal suppression of workers’ democracy and political opposition.
The monstrous development of Stalinism was used in the capitalist West to undermine the genuine ideas of Lenin and Bolshevism. But nothing could stop the ‘mole of revolution’ burrowing at the weakening foundations of the crisis-ridden capitalist system in the 1920s and 1930s.
Leon Trotsky took up the heroic defence of the Russian revolution, fighting for the ideas of workers’ democratic state planning and internationalism, that would lay the basis for the development of the world revolution under more favourable circumstances.
Since then, there have been the revolutionary events of Spain in the 1930s; France 1936; the global revolutionary wave that followed the end of the second world war; the colonial revolution, and the 1959 Cuban revolution; France 1968; Chile 1973; Portugal 1974. More recently we’ve seen the Arab Spring of 2011, along with the significant intense working-class struggles on every continent.
All of these movements, which unlike 1917 did not succeed in establishing genuine socialism, highlight the importance of Lenin’s ideas: the power of the working class, its leading role in the struggle for socialism, and the need for a mass party rooted in the working class and based on Marxist ideas.
Today the capitalist system fails to deliver decent living standards for the mass of the population. We stand on the shoulders of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. We have a huge advantage in drawing on the lessons of the past in preparing for the huge battles to come. The Socialist Party has important roots in the working class and the trade unions, past victories, and international links to co-thinkers across the world.
We’re confident that the radicalised working class and youth of the world will seek a way forward, and look for ideas and organisation to solve their problems.
- This article was originally published in The Socialist (E&W) on the 150 anniversary of Lenin’s birth