- One Hundred Years since October
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 opened up a new historical epoch and was greeted with enthusiasm by workers around the world. Never before had workers come close to winning power, though many participated in political life in the social democratic parties of Western Europe. Now, suddenly, in Russia, revolution was an actuality, not simply a hope or a threat, as a huge country broke from international capitalism. It is almost impossible to imagine today the intoxicating power of that moment: Victor Serge described it as one where “life is beginning anew, where conscious will, intelligence, and an inexorable love of mankind are in action.”1
Russian Revolution as Workers’ Democracy / Workers’ Power
Workers around the world greeted the Russian Revolution with jubilation because it represented their broadest aspirations, a new “democracy of free workers, such as had never before been seen.”2 In Russia’s frontline cities of Petrograd and Moscow, Tashkent and Kazan, and in the provinces from Tula to Tambov, Ryazan to Kaluga, in the networks of railroads across the country, hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, and soldiers took their fate into their own hands. They organized collectively at the level of industry, agriculture, and garrisons, forming committees and councils, developing their politics, their leaderships, and their power to fight their employers and the state, all at the same time. In the process, they created innovative forms of self-rule and of workers’ democracy: workers’ councils, peasants’ councils, soldiers’ councils—soviets, in Russian parlance.
This new democratic form of workers self-organization arose spontaneously and quickly blossomed independently from the existing political parties. The soviets made their first appearance in 1905 and were swiftly adopted as an organizing tool by workers around the globe as a higher form of political organization for the working class. This was a historic reversal—and a significant step forward for concretizing [End Page 11] democracy—because it meant that the parties had to compete for workers’ allegiance in a common political arena.
The revolution of 1917 took up where the revolution of 1905 left off; it was from start to finish a story of workers’ initiatives to amass and ultimately take power. The mobilized masses had become increasingly combative and moved toward revolution in the context of a crumbling Russian empire and a war that exacerbated all the difficulties of life. By February 1917 there were strikes and a huge mass rising, with workers taking to the streets. They called for an end to the autocracy, demanding bread, land, and peace. They poured into central Petrograd and overthrew the tsar and his regime.
Most accounts of the revolution characterize it as a violent coup by the minority Bolshevik leadership who manipulated their way to power, overturning a nascent democracy, mobilizing the working class behind them like soldiers following their officers. The overwhelming evidence from a century of intense historical scholarship shows otherwise. Political life within the party and its leadership, as in the soviets, was at all times collective, with tendencies appearing and disappearing over disagreements. The Bolsheviks were able to succeed precisely because they were organized not in a top-down, military way but in a decentralized manner, which could integrate large numbers of workers very rapidly and respond immediately to their initiatives. From this vantage point, as we learn from The Bolsheviks Come to Power, by Alex Rabinowich, the Bolsheviks prevailed because they could so quickly respond to the changing demands, objectives, and moods of the workers, who made the Bolshevik party their organization even as they directly collaborated with worker members of other parties.3
The Bolsheviks came to represent the working class at its most creative and radical, when the class could actually shape the party to its needs. The tactical and strategic skill of Lenin and Trotsky was crucial to the victorious revolution, but they were but first among comrades, their leadership and that of the Bolsheviks based on the effectiveness of their activity. The October Revolution has been widely presented as the work of a small conspiracy that intended to establish a monopoly of power for themselves from the outset. But the fact is that the...