Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution Essay Sample
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Could the Bolshevik Revolution have taken place without the participation of the founder and perpetual leader of the Bolsheviks? Really, the question seems too silly to ask. Lenin’s fingerprints are all over the October insurrection. However, it is not logically inconceivable that a popular uprising could have taken place against the Provisional Government without the aid of Lenin or his party. It will be contended in this chapter that such
that such an uprising was, if not inevitable, then certainly very probable. This will be shown through the use of the model developed in chapter one. The analysis presented in this chapter will proceed through two steps, corresponding to the two questions raised by the model.
First it will be shown that there was a strong popular demand for many of the policies which the Bolsheviks were to incorporate into their programme. Some of the groups making these demands (especially the soldiers and sailors) were armed, and were concentrated in the vicinity of Petrograd and, to a smaller degree, Moscow. These groups were, therefore, both ideally situated to launch a coup d’etat in order to achieve their goals, and entirely willing to do so. They lacked only a “vanguard” to coordinate their efforts.
According to the model developed in Chapter One, these groups could be expected to search out, support, and in a sense actually “create” a leadership which would champion their views.
The remarkable rise in Bolshevik support between the February and October revolutions, it will be argued, was due primarily to the capable manner in which Lenin established his party as the primary voice for the demands of these groups. In so doing he pre-empted other potential leaders from this role. This is hardly a revolutionary new viewpoint on the reasons for the rising popularity of the Bolsheviks, but it is critical to the argument which follows. There was a genuine need, in the Russia of 1917, for a party to represent the popular desire for bread, peace and land. There was, thus, a political vacuum to be filled. Lenin and the Bolsheviks certainly filled this vacuum very effectively, but Lenin was by no stretch of the imagination the only individual capable of playing the role of spokesman for the groups which his party represented. Nor, indeed, was he the only individual willing to fulfil this role. However, his dynamism in his chosen role ensured that he would gather the Bolshevik standard most of the other prominent groups and individuals who supported these goals. In so doing, the potential leadership qualities of these other individuals were, perhaps, obscured.
Corresponding to the second question asked in the model, it will be shown that Lenin faced an open field, full of potential competitors for the reins of power. He occupied no state office, and thus was unprotected from competition. At any rate, his own abrupt seizure of power from Kerensky demonstrates that the occupation of state office was a small enough protection in those turbulent days. Lenin did occupy an important party office, which did amount to a small advantage, but it will be argued here that this advantage was not decisive. To this end, evidence will be presented that the support of Lenin’s own party was largely predicated upon Lenin’s pursuit of the broad course of action which he did in fact take. So too, it will be maintained, was the support of many of the individuals who joined forces with the Bolsheviks in 1917.
The answer to the first question consists of an examination of each of the three broad groups of society (the soldiers and sailors, the urban working class and the peasantry) to whom the Bolsheviks appealed in 1917. In each case it can be shown that the group in question was a powerful and useful ally. In each case Lenin carefully identified his party with the professed interests of these groups, to great effect. Statistical evidence can easily be provided which demonstrates that the Bolshevik popularity grew as a result (if not actually proportion to) this increasing unity of interest between the party and the groups to which it was appealing. In view of the fact that no attempt is being made to present new factual evidence, and that the arguments presented in the first part of the chapter are already widely accepted, these arguments can be made in a fairly cursory manner. No attempt will be made to list all the groups and sub-groups to which Bolshevik appeals were made, nor to exhaustively consider all the subtleties of the policies towards the groups which are being reviewed.
Russia had become, following the February Revolution, a rather freeform and freewheeling multi-party democracy. Indeed, stuffed full as it now was with committees and councils, Russia had developed an overabundance of democracy. While the mechanics of the new Russian system were quite unique, at least some of the aspects of the new society were rather like those of any multi-party democracy. The newly liberated and politically conscious public was for the most part unencumbered by any coherent political ideology, and saw politics as a mechanism for achieving specific limited material goals, rather than the restructuring of the whole of society. These goals differed from group to group, and as in any complex society there were many groups, each hoping to swing public policy in a direction favourable to its own interests.
For example, workers at the armaments factories in Tula were in favour, as a rule, of continuing the war effort against the Germans, or at least of maintaining a state of armed preparedness, despite the economy’s inability to support either of these two options. In early 1918 they strongly opposed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk because they feared that its disarmament provisions might include the shutting of their plants, and might thereby cost them their jobs. These factories thus became a receptive target for Menshevik agitation, and remained strongly anti-Bolshevik.
Another, better known interest group of the revolutionary period was the railway workers’ union. There were over one million railway workers in Russia at the time of the revolution. From March 1917 onwards, they were represented by “Vikzhel” (the acronym for the All-Russian Executive Committee of Railway Workers). Wartime Russia was dependent upon the railroads for most troop movements and for food supplies to the two capitals. Vikzhel used this tremendous dependency as a lever by which to advance its members’ interests. In economic matters, the railwaymen were concerned with improving or at least maintaining their standard of living. In the economic disorder of revolutionary Russia, this meant fighting perpetually with the Provisional Government over pay, but also demanding (and winning) the right for Vikzhel members to have the “first claim” to food supplies, once military needs had been covered.
Politically, Vikzhel sought a stable environment in which it could maintain the privileged position which its members had gained after the February Revolution. While it mouthed the usual revolutionary epithets, Vikzhel did everything possible to maintain the status quo. One of the reasons why the Kornilov Revolt was derailed in August was that the railway men refused to transport the general’s troops. The day after the Bolshevik insurrection, Vikzhel declared that it would assume control of the railways until a coalition government consisting of all socialist parties was established. This would have meant returning as closely to the pre-October status quo, as seemed possible, except that the liberals (for whom the railway workers had no special affection) and Kerensky would have been excluded from government. On October 29, a further statement was issued which is revealing of the railwaymen’s basic concern with stability:
A people that is opposed to the death penalty as a means of justice, and is rejecting war as a method of settling international disputes, cannot accept civil war as a means to end internal quarrels. Every civil war leads straight to counter-revolution and is advantageous only to the enemy of the people. In order to guard the liberty of the country and to save the revolution, the Central Committee of the All-Russian Union of Railwaymen has, from the very beginning of this civil strife, assumed a strictly neutral attitude and has declared that the only way to obtain internal peace is by forming a homogeneous ministry, made up of the Socialist parties, from the Bolsheviks to the Socialists-Populists inclusive.
Faced with the prospect of food supplies to Petrograd being cut off, the Bolsheviks consented to negotiate with Vikzhel, although not, it would seem, in particularly good faith. The union maintained itself in a position of considerable strength for several months following the Bolshevik seizure of power, but was eventually supplanted by legislation which gave control of each rail line to a soviet representing the workers on that line. The Bolshevik government was thus able to draw the railwaymen away from Vikzhel by “outbidding” it: offering the workers a deal so sweet that it destroyed the raison d’etre of Vikzhel. This, combined with a few carefully placed and limited measures of repression, destroyed the union.
What the examples of Vikzhel and the Tula arms workers show is that in the absence of any strong sense of unifying national purpose such as there had been right after war was declared in 1914, it had become critically important for any aspiring Russian leader to appeal to the material interests of the various groups which made up Russian society, and particularly to those groups in positions of power. The urban masses wanted bread, the soldiers wanted peace, and the peasantry sought land redistribution. Thus, the genius of Lenin’s slogan “Bread, Peace and Land” is the way in which he sought to appeal to the specific demands of each of these three groups. Like the best party leaders in any multi-party system, Lenin was building a coalition of interest groups. These groups would provide his basis of support when the Bolsheviks made their grab for power in October.
The aspirations of each of the groups to which Lenin made his appeal will be examined in turn. The soldiers and sailors are the first and probably the most important of these groups. The forces which carried out the insurrection on October 24-25 consisted largely of soldiers and sailors posted in and around Petrograd.
At the time of the February Revolution there were between 215,000 and 300,000 men in the Petrograd garrison. By October this number had declined to around 150,000, because more men had been transferred to the front than back from it. A further 100,000 men were garrisoned in and around Moscow, and 32,000 soldiers and sailors were stationed at Kronstadt. For the most part the men of the garrisons were either over or under age, or else recovering from wounds. They were mostly peasant in background and thus many of them were familiar with and supportive of the ideological programme of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Their real loyalty, however, as Robert Daniels has observed, was to whomever would keep them from being shipped to the front.
There was every reason for the soldiers to resist. Already by 1917 up to two million men had died fighting the Central Powers. Moreover, it was no longer clear what the soldiers were fighting for. The war aims of the Provisional Government were singularly unclear. The collapse, after only two days of fighting, of the June Kerensky offensive made it painfully obvious that the war could not be won by military means. By the time of the October Revolution, even someone as closely linked to the Provisional Government as Alexander Verkhovsky, the minister of war, could conclude that the situation was hopeless, and that the only way of keeping the army strong enough to suppress internal disruptions would beto enter immediately into peace negotiations with the Germans. Speaking at a secret conference of the committees of Foreign Affairs and of National Defense, the minister gave details of the disastrous state of the army:
An army of nine and one-half million men cannot be supported by the country…. According to the data of the Minister of Food….the utmost we are able to support is seven million. These figures are indisputable. On the Northern front famine conditions are already in evidence and the soldiers’ rations have been reduced to one and one-half pounds. Furthermore, we can neither shoe nor clothe the army. On account of the decrease in the productivity of labor after the revolution and the lack of raw material the output of footwear has fallen off to one-half of the output of 1916, and there is less than one-half of the warm clothing necessary.
In the days preceding the October Revolution it was becoming clear to observers on all sides that the Bolsheviks had scored a tremendous success in establishing themselves as the party of peace, since it was by this means that they had secured the loyalty of the soldiers. Thus, there was some frantic discussion of stealing back this constituency by declaring openly for peace. In Verkhovsky’s eyes, this was the only way of stopping the Bolsheviks from seizing power.
However, a declaration—yet another declaration on the part of the Provisional Government—probably would not have been enough. The loyalty of the soldiers to the Bolsheviks was by now so intense that it is difficult to imagine how it could have been won away from them. In local elections held in September in Moscow, for example, the Bolsheviks won 83% of the garrison vote, as opposed to only 51% of the civilian vote.
In fact, this massive support had been earned by slow and hard labor on the part of the Bolsheviks. Just as the soldiers and sailors had been quite consistent in their demands for peace, the Bolsheviks had been consistent in their support of the soldiers. They had been producing a newspaper, Soldatskaya Pravda, especially for the soldiers for several months, and had recruited and agitated among the soldiers much more actively than any of the other parties. For this Lenin can take much credit. The April Theses had had an electrifying effect upon the most politically active of the soldiers and sailors. Shortly after the party’s adoption of the theses the Kronstadt soviet had produced a Bolshevik majority. It was the first body in all Russia to do so. The Bolsheviks also won points when they held firm against the death penalty, which the Provisional Government had reintroduced on the front in order to stiffen discipline.
Still, the Bolsheviks were not alone on the Left in this period. As the war dragged on interminably and the dithering of the Provisional Government became unbearable, the most radical troops began to be influenced by the anarchists. The Bolsheviks thus had no choice but to keep up the rhetoric or risk losing this constituency. As early as mid-June, some Bolshevik organizers feared that the soldiers would transfer their support to the anarchists if the Bolsheviks backed down on their promise to help stage mass demonstrations in protest to the preparations being made by the Provisional Government for a military offensive. The fear was perhaps a bit premature, for the Bolsheviks were able to back down without losing the loyalty of the soldiers and sailors. However, it was a token of things to come.
The support of the industrial workers of Russia, and especially of Petrograd and Moscow, was an important factor in the ultimate success of the October Revolution. Theproletariat provided a more concrete base of support than did the army, which was on the verge of dissolution. Moreover, the support of the workers gave the Bolsheviks a geographical base of support which stretched beyond the garrison towns. The Red Guards, who would provide critical support for the insurrection, were drawn from among the ranks of the urban proletariat. There were, in October, 15-20,000 Red Guards in Petrograd and between 10,000 and 15,000 in Moscow. Their numbers nationwide at the time of the revolution have been estimated at 70-100,000. Poorly trained and armed, they were a much less formidable force than either the sailors or the garrison troops, but the Bolsheviks nonetheless considered them to be an important asset. As John Keep observes, however weak they may have been by objective standards, “they were strong enough to overcome opponents who had lost the will to resist.” After the revolution they would become the germ of the new Red Army. Workers also served the Bolsheviks in a variety of other roles. Many workers proved to be tireless agitators, for example.
From the very beginning of the revolution the workers appear to have been motivated by self-interest rather than by any substantial comprehension of Marxism or any other ideology. Even the desire for retribution against the Tsar seems to have been fairly minimal, to judge from the fact that cries for his arrest in the first days of the revolution were remarkably few and far between. Some of the demands of the workers were of the most fundamental sort. Essentially, they wanted enough to eat. In a country with a collapsing economy, a decaying system of transportation, and millions of hungry soldiers in the field, providing adequate food was in itself a considerable challenge.
Beyond this, one of the most basic concerns for Russian industrial workers was keeping pace with inflation, which had been bad throughout the war and in 1917 was rocketing upwards out of control. If the price index for 1913 is taken as a base, then by January 1917 prices had gone up 350% and by October 1430%. Tracing the inflation-induced growth of industrial wages during this period, it is possible to see them struggle and gradually fail to keep up with the rising cost of living, despite their almost constant nominal growth. In comparing the wages of workers at five Petrograd factories during the course of 1917, Stephen Smith has found that real wages had dropped by October to as low as 42% of their January level in the worst case, and that even in the best of the five cases they had only maintained 90% of their real January level.
Another prime concern for workers was the simple maintenance of their jobs. The deterioration of the economy had reduced the supply of raw materials flowing into the factories and the demand for the products flowing out, thereby making it an unprofitable for factories to operate fully staffed.
As a result many enterprises wanted to lay off workers. As might be expected, the workers banded together and refused to co-operate with these plans. In Petrograd the factory committees, which had sprung up immediately following the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, often found that one of their most important tasks was preventing the removal of equipment to locations outside the capital. Once the machinery had been evacuated, management would be able to shut down the old factories and fire the workers. In one well-known example, the management of a factory declared its intention to transfer 4,000 machines as well as 20,000 workers and 40,000 spouses and dependents from Petrograd to the towns of Penza, Voronezh and Ekaterinoslav. Extensive research on the part of the factory committee, including visits to the proposed new sites, produced evidence that none of the locations was ready to receive such a massive new influx of workers and that the real plan was to transfer 1281 workers and fire all the rest. The plan was of course blocked. Similar events took place at other factories in Petrograd.
In order to enforce their decisions not to permit the transfer of equipment and not to tolerate layoffs or firings, the factory committees required an armed wing. This gave rise to the groups of armed workers which came to be known as the workers’ militias, and which grew and developed, under Bolshevik tutelage, into the Red Guards. From the beginning the workers felt that the militias were an essential element in their struggle to save their jobs and to improve or at least maintain their income levels. In a country where strikes had traditionally been crushed by armed force, such sentiments were only natural. The Bolsheviks agreed with this, and supported the right of the workers to maintain independent militias. The executive of the Petrograd soviet did not agree however, and its continued opposition between March and June to this right “…shattered [the politically conscious minority of workers] faith in the moderate socialists, for it was seen as tantamount to sabotaging the gains of February”. This according to Stephen Smith, who also argues that this dispute did more than anything else to radicalize the politically conscious minority and cast them into the arms of the Bolsheviks.
The slogan “Workers’ Control”, first developed by Lenin in May, also struck a responsive chord amongst the industrial workers. By “workers’ control” Lenin meant that workers should have access to all the financial and accounting records of the enterprises by which they were employed, and that in addition they should be granted the power to make management decisions by democratic majority vote. In taking this stand Lenin was approaching syndicalism. Perhaps he was consciously trying to prevent any loss of support to the anarchists. His major tract of the summer of 1917, The State and Revolution, was strongly syndicalist in tone. He writes the following at one point in State and Revolution:
Until the “higher” phase of communism arrives, the socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labour and the measure of consumption; but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the establishment of workers’ control over the capitalists, and must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers. The selfish defence of capitalism by the bourgeois ideologists (and their hangers-on, like the Tseretelis, Chernovs and Co.) consists in that they substitute arguing and talk about the distant future for the vital and burning question of present-day politics, namely, the expropriation of the capitalists, the conversion of all citizens into workers and other employees of one huge “syndicate”–the whole state….
Another way in which the Bolsheviks appealed to the Petrograd workers in particular was in setting themselves up as the major opponents of the evacuation of the city. There was much talk, as the summer progressed, about the possibility of removing the seat of government from Petrograd to Moscow, which was considered to be better protected from the danger of German occupation. The idea originated with the Kerensky Government, which was, entirely properly, considering all military possibilities and weighing all options. However, there were some in the government, (including Kerensky himself) who could see an additional reason for moving the capital to Moscow or elsewhere.
In so doing, they felt, they would be freeing the government from the stranglehold of the radicalized soldiers and workers. Naturally, the radicalized workers dreaded the prospect of the removal of the seat of government, especially when this was interpreted as meaning that Kerensky was secretly plotting with the Germans to hand over the city so that its revolutionary fires could be quenched. This interpretation was complete nonsense, but Kerensky found it difficult to avoid being associated with comments such as this one, by Mikhail Rodzianko, the former president of the State Duma: “Petrograd appears threatened….I say, to hell with Petrograd….People fear our central institutions in Petrograd will be destroyed. To this, let me say that I should be glad if these institutions were destroyed because they have brought Russia nothing but grief.” Poor Kerensky soon found himself in the unenviable position of being accused simultaneously of being a traitor and of being a bloodthirsty defensist. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were able both to present themselves as the party of peace and simultaneously to demand the defense of the capital.
The vast majority of the Russian population in 1917—over 80%—was made up of peasants. While no group containing such a vast proportion of the nation’s population could have been totally ignored by any faction in the struggle for power, the peasants were not as significant a force as their numbers would indicate. They never really set up the institutions which would have enabled them to act effectively on the national stage. They were, for example, very slow to establish soviets on the Petrograd model. By October, soviets of peasant deputies existed in only half of the 813 uezds in Russia, and in a mere 11% of the volosts. On the other hand, these institutions had been established in all but two of the 78 Guberniia capitals (up from 52 of the 78 capitals in July),largely as a result of outside agitation by S.R.’s and Bolsheviks. The fact that there is a higher ratio of present soviets at the higher levels than at the lower ones suggests that the soviets were not regarded by the peasants as holding the same important place that they had been awarded in the minds of the soldiers and urban workers, and that they tended to need an outside push to be established. Perhaps this is because, unlike the village assembly, the soviets were “outside” forms, introduced on a model which fit the town rather than the village.
If the peasants were out of step with urban Russia in 1917, it was largely because they were scattered across such a vast expanse of territory. The relative isolation of the peasant village, far from the great cities and often several days travelling-distance even from the nearest railway line, ensured that large-scale concerted peasant activity would be difficult to arrange. The delay involved in disseminating information to these remote corners of the country also meant that it would have been difficult for the peasants to know how to act, even if they had wanted to make an impact on events in the capital. This was a problem, incidentally, which in 1917 limited the effectiveness of all groups, peasant or not, outside the revolutionary hearth of Petrograd.
Another reason for the relative docility of the peasantry (as far as party politics were concerned) was that they had been able to at least partially achieve their most significant goals on their own initiative. The peasants had long resented the fact that the landed aristocracy continued to own a substantial percentage of the land. Peasant ideology, insofar as it existed at all, held that nobody should own more land than was needed to support an adequate living, especially if one’s neighbours were having difficulty getting by. Peasant self-interest demanded that this land be seized and redistributed at once, and so it was.
The instruments of law-enforcement had largely disintegrated in the countryside, and the peasants were as a rule able to seize and distribute land in the manner which they felt suited them best. There was no single method. Lands could be seized outright and redistributed, or the peasant could prevent the owner from sowing the fields, with the expectation that unsown land would be declared by the government to be open and suitable for redistribution. Alternatively, the owner might be permitted to sow, but his crops would later be seized. Less intrusive and violent methods predominated in the early months of the revolution, with outright seizures rising as the peasants grew tired of waiting for the Provisional Government to give them legal title to state and aristocratically owned land. Whatever the methods used, the peasants were handling their problems to a large extent on their own. The greater rewards to be gained from this sort of activity over participating in the national political forum helped ensure that peasant participation in that forum would stay a low level.
The support of the peasants was valuable for different reasons. The army was mostly made up of peasants–“peasants in uniform” as they came to be known. Therefore the party with policies most favourable to the interests of the peasant masses would be likely to gain support in the garrisons and trenches. Lenin himself certainly believed this to be the case, and indicated several years after the revolution that he considered one of the main reasons for his party’s victory in the revolution to be its indirect appeal to the soldiers through its generous policies towards the peasantry. The industrial workers were also tied, to an extent, to the peasantry. Many workers still had roots in the villages. This could mean that their relatives still lived there, or that the worker’s immediate family had remained on the farm while he (or she, although this was less likely) had gone to the city to find employment. In a survey conducted shortly before the war, it was determined that 46% of all workers in the Moscow printing trade had farms which presumably were worked by family members while the city-dwelling individual was away.
There is a further way in which peasant support may have proved valuable to the Bolsheviks. There is an interesting correlation between those areas of the countryside which voted for the Bolsheviks in the elections to the Constituent Assembly in November 1917 and the areas which remained loyally pro-Red in the Civil War. Areas where the Whites were strongest tended to be those areas in which electoral support for the Bolsheviks had been the weakest. While not too much should be read into this correlation, which as yet has not been satisfactorily explained, it is certainly not impossible that the support of the peasantry in the Russian heartland was of aid to the Red side in the Civil War.
The Bolshevik appeal to the peasantry was uncomplicated and bold. Take the land and divide it among yourselves without delay, they declared. This was of course, explicitly what the peasants wanted to hear. On every occasion on which he spoke of the issue of land redistribution, Lenin was careful not only to stress his party’s commitment to immediate redistribution, but also to lay emphasis upon the failure of the other parties, and especially of the S.R.’s, also to consent to immediate repartition. The Bolshevik stand on peasant issues was actually quite complex and detailed, but it was this key feature which was repeatedly emphasized by Lenin in his speeches and articles.
The success of Bolshevik agitation among the peasantry is rather difficult to measure, since it is impossible to know what percentage of the peasant population was ever exposed to Bolshevik propaganda. As a general rule, however, it may be stated that in those areas where the peasants did have access to Bolshevik propaganda, they tended to vote for the party in the November elections to the Constituent Assembly.
Over-all, the rewards to the Bolsheviks of their strategy of appealing to these three groups were substantial. The party grew from strength to strength throughout 1917. This can be measured in a number of ways. Party membership grew from roughly 20-30,000 in February to 79,000 in late April and 250,000 in August. Figures for October are unavailable, but Leonard Schapiro believes, based upon the continued growth in the number of local organizations, that membership continued to increase between August and October. Bolshevik representation in the Soviets, soldiers’ councils and factory committees also rose, so that by the end of summer the Bolsheviks held a plurality of the seats in soviets located in several key regions of the country. Six weeks before the insurrection itself, the Bolsheviks won a majority on the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolshevik share of the seats on the Moscow ward councils rose from 11% in July to 51% in October. If the payoff was substantial among the population in general,it was even higher among the “targeted” groups towards whose interests the Bolsheviks had made special appeals. Thus one finds that fully forty percent of total Bolshevik party membership in August was concentrated in Moscow and Petrograd, where it could be put to practical use in placing the Bolsheviks in power.
One of the most fascinating ways of viewing the manner in which the Bolshevik strategy had paid off is by studying the pattern of electoral returns from the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Held on November 12-14, the balloting provides the closest thing we have to a public opinion poll on the popularity of the various parties in the period of the October Revolution. What the balloting reveals is that the Bolsheviks had built a commanding lead among their targeted groups. Their gains are particularly impressive among those sectors of these groups which were particularly well-situated to pick up the latest news or to hear the latest propaganda. Where their gains among these groups are weak, there is usually some extenuating circumstance, such as geographical isolation or an appeal by other parties to local nationalist sentiments.
This can be seen by comparing the returns from the various military fronts. The strength of the Bolsheviks declines in proportion with the distance of the front in question from the revolutionary centre of Petrograd. The Bolsheviks were strongest on the Northern and Western fronts, weaker on the Southwestern front, where they ran nearly neck-and-neck with the Socialist Revolutionaries, significantly weaker on the Romanian Front, and terribly weak on the Caucasian front, where the S.R.s scored their greatest victory. The extent of the differences between fronts was enormous. For example, on the Western Front the Bolsheviks won 653,430 votes, or 66.9% of the total, to the S.R.s 180,582 (18.5%). On the Romanian Front the roles were reversed, and the Bolsheviks won only 167,000 votes (14.8%) to 679,471 (60.2%) for the S.R.s. Oliver Radkey, who has compiled these statistics, is unequivocal in his explanation of this disparity:
The voting at the front and in the navy seems to have been determined by one circumstance along—the extent to which Bolshevik agitation had been carried on among the rank and file.
In the countryside a similar pattern emerges. Wherever the soldiers had returned from the front, their influence was enormous. This was usually, although not always, a great advantage for the Bolsheviks. In one Guberniia, it is possible to see how far these massagers of revolutionary ideas had progressed by looking at the map:
cantons near the railroad line went for the Bolsheviks and those further away for the S.R.’s, simply because the soldiers had worked the villages near the stations but had not penetrated into the interior.
In the capital, voting breaks into two clear groups. The first consists of anti-revolutionary bourgeoisie and its ally the bureaucrats, who voted for the Kadets and won for this party 34.5% of the total vote in Moscow and 26.2% in Petrograd. The second group consists of soldiers and workers, who voted overwhelmingly for the Bolsheviks—47.9% of the total electorate in Moscow and 45.0% in Petrograd. The vote for all other parties combined did not exceed 30.0% in either city. Radkey draws the following conclusions from the elections and their reflection of popular support across Russia:
The Bolsheviks had the center of the country—the big cities, the industrial towns, and the garrisons of the rear; they controlled those sections of the army most strategically located with reference to Moscow and Petrograd; they even commanded a strong following among the peasants of the central, White Russian, and Northwestern regions.
All of the above evidence combines to provide a positive answer to the first of the questions posed in the “replaceability” model. The three interest groups just considered had very strong incentives to affect the outcome of government policy. In some cases they not unreasonably felt that the direction of policy decisions was a matter of life and death. In such circumstances these groups could be expected to actively support whatever vanguard seemed most likely to yield them the desired policy results. This is why they supported the Bolsheviks. But, as the “replaceability” model indicates in its explanation of simultaneous and near-simultaneous inventions, there is every reason to expect that these groups would not have stood still and waited in the absence of Lenin and his party. They would almost certainly have actively sought out and thrown their support behind the next-best candidate.
The subject of the second question posed in the application of the “replaceability” model considers whether, in the face of a considerable demand for leadership or innovation, any individuals of sufficient quality and qualifications actually existed, and whether these individuals (if they did exist) might have been excluded from realistic competition from power by legal or other such barriers. To answer the second question, it is best to start by considering some of the individuals won over to Bolshevism in 1917.
By October the Bolsheviks had accumulated a large mass of new supporters at all levels of the party organization. Not only low and medium-rank party functionaries had been won over by the bold policies enunciated by Lenin, but also many distinguished and accomplished revolutionaries of long standing. These individuals were welcomed into the highest ranks of the party apparatus.
The most prominent convert of all, of course, was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky entered at the head of the Mezhraionsty group, which had been founded in 1913 as an independent faction of Social Democrats dedicated to uniting the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Mezhraionsty had of course failed to perform this task, and ended up becoming another splinter group. The group, which had 4,000 members and printed its own newspaper, Vpered, did not officially join the Bolsheviks until August 1917. However, Trotsky had been impressed by Lenin’s programme from the moment of his return to Russia in May, and the group itself had declared its support of the Bolshevik platform even before his return.
In fact, they had anticipated Lenin’s April Theses by over a month, calling upon the Petrograd Soviet as early as March 1st to declare itself the Provisional Government of Russia. The three-month delay in joining the Bolsheviks would seem to have been due partly to strategic considerations (it was hoped that Martov’s Menshevik Internationalists could be persuaded to join at the same time as the Mezhraionsty) and partly to Trotsky’s stubborn pride. Trotsky seemed to view the act of joining the Bolsheviks as entailing some sort of personal surrender, or as an admission that he had been wrong in his previous public disputes with Lenin. Apparently he also nursed a vague hope that he would be able to negotiate a more significant role for himself if he held out for a joint congress of the Bolsheviks and Mezhraionsty. Still, by early June, only a month after his return, Trotsky and Lenin were co-operating in the preparation of demonstrations denouncing the “Ten Capitalist Ministers”. A further delay in the union of the two groups, which was to have taken place in early July, was caused by the chaos of the July Days and the subsequent crackdown. By this time Lenin’s name and Trotsky’s were closely associated.
The enthusiasm of Trotsky and the Mezhraionsty for their new found alliance with the Bolsheviks was due entirely to their agreement on the fundamentals of policy. Certainly it was not due to any personal friendship between Lenin and Trotsky; previously the two had been on very poor terms. It seems clear that if Lenin had not been present in 1917, or if he had chosen to pursue another line of policy, the Mezhraionsty would have remained true to their internationalist ideals and would have continued to oppose both the war and the policies of the Provisional Government. The peace-minded soldiers and sailors would have had a vanguard to lead them, and the political vacuum filled by the Bolsheviks could instead have been filled by the Mezhraionsty.
Equipped with a popular, prestigious and well-spoken leader, the Mezhraionsty had at least one of the assets necessary to a successful party. In addition, Trotsky was surrounded by numerous capable individuals, including A.A. Joffe, Anatole Lunacharsky, Moise Uritsky, D.Z. Manuilsky and M. Volodarsky. All of these men were, admittedly, intelligent, but so too were all of the most prominent Bolsheviks. It is true as well that the Mezharionsty lacked the organizational base enjoyed by the Bolsheviks, but this disadvantage should not, perhaps, be overemphasized. The Bolshevik secretariat is said to have consisted in this period of a half-dozen women and the photographic memory of Yakov Sverdlov.
Faced with the overwhelming events of 1917, the Bolsheviks had to build much of their organization from scratch. The same would of course have been true for the Mezhraionsty. The situation would have been similar with regard to financing. The Mezhraionsty lacked funds, but so too did the Bolsheviks much of the time. Even Lenin’s famous “German money” came to the Bolsheviks solely because their defeatist policy coincided with that of the German High Command. The Left S.R.s and Menshevik Internationalists, who were also defeatists, also appear to have received some German funding. Had there been no Bolsheviks in 1917, or had the Bolsheviks been defensists, perhaps their share of the “German money” would have been diverted to the Mezhraionsty. This is, admittedly, an extremely hypothetical proposition. but it is not impossible. More concretely, the same sort of rerouting might well have taken place with such more conventional (and far more important) sources of support as individual donations of money and of labour.
The extent to which questions of policy, rather than of previous party alignment, were the deciding factors in individuals’ choices of party in 1917 is quite remarkable. Party boundaries were by no means completely rigid in 1917, and a number of veteran socialists chose to abandon their original alignments and join other parties. One of the early converts to Bolshevism was Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, the former Menshevik, who joined the Bolsheviks in May. Karl Radek, who had been an internationalist throughout the war, but who was no Bolshevik, joined Lenin in Switzerland immediately following the February Revolution. Grigory Sokolnikov, who was associated until 1917 with Trotsky’s internationalist newspaper Nashe Slovo, but who had been a member neither of the Bolsheviks nor of the Mezhraionsty, had also accompanied Lenin back from Switzerland on the sealed train and continued to work with the Bolsheviks afterwards.
The movement flowed both ways. At a joint meeting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in March, one speaker proposed readjusting the cleavage between the two factions on purely defensist-internationalist grounds. Although the proposal was rejected, a de facto readjustment took place anyway. A number of right-wing Bolsheviks, who concluded that national defence was justified now that a democratic republic had been established, left the party and joined the Mensheviks after the presentation of the “April theses”.
The tendency to divide and realign over matters of policy and principle was quite pronounced in the upper ranks of the Social Democrats in the early stages of the revolution, and would probably have been even more distinct if the key issue in the split—defensism versus internationalism—had not already been one of the main reason for the split in the Russian Social-Democratic movement throughout the war. Much of the polarization had already taken place between 1914 and 1917, and the final defections in March-August can be seen almost as a tidying-up of this division.
If one insists upon imagining that without the influence of Lenin’s April Theses the Bolsheviks would have continued as a party to represent a fairly soft line on defense and the rule of the soviets, then one must also assume that the party would have suffered numerous defections at all levels. For example, it is inconceivable that P.E. Dybenko, who had been arrested once in 1915 for launching a mutiny and once for spreading anti-war propaganda, would have had any patience with a party ready to compromise with the defensists. V.M. Molotov, A.G. Shliapnikov and P.A. Zalutsky, who led the Petrograd organization and edited Pravda in the first half of March 1917, had adopted a strongly internationalist stance and had firmly rejected the legitimacy of the Provisional Government. According to Shliapnikov, they had also been on the verge of merging the Bolshevik Petrograd organization with the Mezhraionsty. All this was brought to an abrupt end by the “virtual coup d’etat” (to use Daniels’ phrase) occasioned by the return from Siberian exile of such notables as Stalin, Kamenev and M.K. Muranov. It was only at this point, some three weeks before Lenin’s return, that the party had adopted a moderate line. Had this line not been reversed, Shliapnikov, who was vocally unhappy, probably would have left. Molotov was more reticent, but he and Zalutsky might well have followed.
Alexandra Kollontai had joined the party during the war precisely because of its defeatist stand, and was the only highly-placed enthusiastic early supporter of the April Theses. Had there been no theses or no Lenin, she almost certainly would have abandoned the Bolsheviks, as she did temporarily a year later over Brest-Litovsk (indeed the willingness of a number of highly-placed Bolsheviks to resign their posts and join the Left Communists following the signing of the treaty shows just how dedicated to their ideals many Bolsheviks were).
N.I. Podvoisky, the editor of Soldatskaya Pravda and one of the members of the Bolshevik Military Organization, was an early supporter of soviet rule. His loyalty to the soldiers’ councils might easily have outweighed his loyalty to the party, had there been a conflict. Even the faithful Sverdlov, widely regarded as one of Lenin’s most faithful disciples, had advocated early on in the revolution a policy of no confidence in the Provisional Government. His loyalty was, moreover, to Lenin and not to the abstract entity known as the Bolshevik Party. Had Lenin not returned from Zurich and had Stalin, Kamenev and Muranov kept the party on its conciliationist path, there is an excellent chance that Sverdlov would have directed his formidable talents towards some other internationalist and pro-Soviet organization.
A few ranks down, there is the example of the Vyborg Borough party committee, which had declared on March 2:
Until the constituent assembly can meet, all power must be concentrated in the hands of the workers and soldiers soviet as the sole revolutionary government. The army and the people should merely carry out the resolutions of the Soviet….The Soviet must convene the constituent assembly, which will settle on a new constitution and end the war.
Here again, it is difficult to imagine the authors of these radical lines being able to make their peace with a moderate party.
All of the examples above show that, far from being the Party of robotized yes-men into which it was later transformed, the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was made up of many dedicated idealists. In the absence of a leader who shared their point of view, these individuals would not have given up the struggle. What they would have done will never be known. Perhaps they would have formed a new bloc, or joined forces with the Mezhraionsty.
The possibility of a new bloc should be strongly emphasized. Historically revolutions have been dominated by blocs created during the progress of the revolution. As the revolutions have progressed, the size, membership and consistency of these various blocs have oscillated considerably. The order of precedence of individuals within these blocs has not always been the same as within the pre-revolutionary radical groups from which they tend to draw their membership. Thus, to argue that a coalition of Mezhraionsty and dissident Bolsheviks would have been impossible due to the unwillingness of upper-level Bolsheviks to accept Trotsky’s leadership is to miss the point entirely. Any one of a number of compromise leaders could have been found.
A note must be included at this point, dealing directly with the dramatic effect of Lenin’s April Theses upon the party. When presented to a joint meeting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on April 4, this list of recommended changes to the Bolshevik platform met with the most violent sort of negative reaction. The proposals, which included, among other things, policies of no confidence in the Provisional
Government and of fraternization between Russian and German troops, were voted down almost unanimously by the Bolshevik Central Committee. Among prominent Bolsheviks only Alexandra Kollontai supported Lenin. A few weeks later this majority had been convinced to come on side with Lenin.
What happened in the interim? There is a serious lack of documentation of the period. We have Lenin’s writings from this time, but not any record of his private conversations with the other leading Bolsheviks, and the memoir literature is singularly empty of discussion of the embarrassing interlude during which the Party rejected Lenin’s policies. In the absence of such hard information, it is all too easy to speculate—and it is nothing more than speculation of the most insubstantial sort—that Lenin had, by dint of his iron will, single-handedly swung the entire party away from the conciliationist and potentially even defensist policies which it might otherwise have followed. There is no evidence whatever for this point of view, only the vague sentiment that it is difficult to imagine any other explanation for such a dramatic turn-around. Yet it takes no more imagination to dream up an alternative piece of speculation. Perhaps Lenin’s views in early April were a reflection of his vaunted powers of insight, with the result that his theses were quite naturally opposed by his less gifted colleagues until their levels of consciousness could catch up with his.
Lenin’s presentation of the theses was closely followed up by the crisis of the “April Days”, in which significant popular protests were raised in Petrograd against the Provisional Government for its continued goal of annexing the Bosporus and Dardanelles. The early revolutionary consensus, based upon a common hatred of the old regime, was fast fading under the weight of enormous policy disagreements over issues as fundamental as war versus peace. Under such circumstances the validity of Lenin’s point of view would have sunk in more deeply every day.
Or, here is another alternative piece of speculation. Perhaps the Bolsheviks were incensed at Lenin for having rained on their festivities. The meeting at which the theses were originally presented was one at which both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were present. This meeting had been intended to be another step towards the reunification of the Social Democrats. Into this milieu Lenin had stepped, and had called not only for fraternization with the enemy and a policy of no confidence in the government, but also for an end to any silly talk of unity among the Social Democrats. Once having made this declaration, it is only to be expected that he would have received the unenthusiastic welcome reserved for the wedding guest who stands up in mid-ceremony and declares that yes, indeed there is a reason why the bride and groom should not be lawfully wed. It scarcely matters that party reconcil- ation would have been problematic even without Lenin’s opposition—He was resented for not even wanting to try, and for making his views known in such a callous manner and at such an inappropriate time.
These two alternative explanations of the pattern of responses to the April Theses are no less speculative than the first, but at least they have the virtue, which the first view lacks, of casting Lenin as a man rather than as a superhero capable of any feat, and of giving the other Bolshevik leaders at least a little credit for having some conviction in their views and some strength in maintaining them. No more need be said about the April Theses, for there really is just too little hard evidence to permit one to draw more substantial conclusions.
Lenin’s conversion of the Central Committee to his point of view in October may be dealt with in a similar manner. Returning from Finland to find the Bolshevik leadership generally cool towards the idea of an early insurrection, Lenin launched a vigorous personal campaign to change their minds. In the course of two meetings, on October 10 and 16, Lenin managed to win over the majority first of the Central Committee (by a vote of 10-2) and then of an extended group which included not only the Central Committee, but also Bolshevik notables from the trade unions, the Petrograd Soviet, the Bolshevik Military Organization and the Petrograd city organization (by a vote of 19-2, with four abstentions). There is a great deal more information available about the process by which Lenin’s opponents were converted to his point of view in October than there is for April. Lenin argued forcefully and effectively for insurrection, pursuing relentlessly the line he had argued in his letters from Finland.
Now is the time, he declared, for insurrection. If we do not strike now our chance will be lost, perhaps forever. At last he browbeat his opponents, who a few weeks earlier had favoured burning his letters from Finland, into voting in favour of a resolution supporting an insurrection. But in the process, the wording of his resolution had been watered down. At the October 10 meeting, the Central Committee decided only that armed insurrection was the “order of the day”. The political bureau founded at this meeting in order to guide the preparations for insurrection was stillborn, and there is no evidence that it ever met. the concrete organizational results of this meeting and of the next were negligence. The actual preparations for the insurrections were handled by the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which had no formal connection with the Bolshevik Central Committee. There is nothing at all to indicate that preparations for an insurrection proceeded more quickly as a result of Lenin’s victory with the Central Committee. When the insurrection did come at last, its timing seems to have been determined by clumsy attempt on the part of the Provisional Government at a crackdown, and not by any action or resolution of the Bolshevik leadership or of Lenin.
This is the thrust of Daniels’ book, Red October. The most that Daniels is willing to concede to Lenin is this:
To this extent there is some truth in the contentions, both Soviet and non-Soviet, that Lenin’s leadership was decisive[:] By psychological pressure on his Bolshevik lieutenants and his manipulation of the fear of counterrevolution, he set the stage for the one-party seizure of power. But the facts of the record show that in the crucial days before October 24th Lenin was not making his leadership effective. The party, unable to face up directly to his browbeating, was tacitly violating his instructions and waiting for a multi-party and semi-constitutional revolution by the Congress of Soviets. Lenin had failed to seize the moment, failed to avert the trend to a compromise coalition regime of the soviets, failed to nail down the base for his personal dictatorship–until the government struck on the morning of the 24th of October.
The answer provided in the preceding pages to the second question posed by the model of replaceability is that there were alternative sources of leadership in 1917 to that of Lenin. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that Trotsky or any of the lesser lights would or could have produced exactly the same leadership as Lenin. However, leadership of so massive an enterprise as a proletarian revolution is to a certain degree a collective task, and clearly much of the supporting cast was more flexible in its partisan loyalties than it was in its internationalist and proletarian ideals. Not only was there alternative leadership, but there was no mechanism by which this alternative leadership could have been denied access to the means of insurrection. There is no reason to believe that the Provisional Government would have been any more capable of suppressing them in the end than it was of suppressing Lenin’s Bolsheviks in October.
The facts laid out in this chapter firmly suggest that Lenin was by no means irreplaceable. Such leadership as he provided was being actively sought, for the most powerful groups in Russia had much to gain from it. As the “replaceability” model indicates, drawing upon the examples of the “races” to develop various potentially profitable products, such circumstances tend to provide multiple candidates. And certainly, it is also clear that there was a substantial pool of revolutionary talent upon which to draw. These are the conditions under which it is most difficult for an individual to alter the course of events, in a unique and idiosyncratic manner, for he or she is likely simply to be replacing another individual more or less equally suited to the task. On this basis it seems unlikely that Lenin changed the course of the revolution or, therefore of the many events influenced by the revolution’s outcome.
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