The Russian Revolution: Workers in Power

Against the Current, No. 189, July/August 2017

Peter Solenberger

October 1917:
Workers in Power
Fred Leplat and Alex de Jong, editors
London: Resistance Books, IIRE and Merlin Press, 2016, 256 pages, $23 paperback.

THIS YEAR IS THE centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In February 1917, by the Russian calendar of the time, workers in Petrograd, starting with women textile workers, began a series of strikes and demonstrations demanding bread, peace and freedom.

The Petrograd garrison came over to their side, the Czar abdicated, and the revolution spread across the empire. Peasants, the large majority of the population and of the army, joined the uprising, adding their demand for land.

The February Revolution established the dual power of a Provisional Government and workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils (soviets). The Provisional Government, initially led by liberal representatives of the propertied classes and then by moderate socialists, claimed that it supported the demands of the masses but refused to meet them. The workers, soldiers and peasants took matters into their own hands as much as they could, but they needed a government of their own.

On October 25, by the calendar of the time, the Petrograd Soviet, led by the Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries, overthrew the Provisional Government. The next day the All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Peasants’ deputies endorsed the insurrection, took power, and adopted decrees on land, peace and workers’ control. The October Revolution established the first workers’ government since the 1871 Paris Commune and the first ever to last long enough to change the social order.

October 1917: Workers in Power is a fine tribute to the Revolution, with articles by Paul LeBlanc, François Vercammen, Ernest Mandel, David Mandel (unrelated), Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, as well as a chronology, a list of people, places, events and organizations, and a bibliography. It should engage readers new to the subject, radical historians looking to connect their work with real life, and activists looking to connect their work with revolutionary history.

The book defends the October Revo­lution and the revolutionary tradition of October from a Trotskyist perspective, but it also critically assesses both. It asks and attempts to answer, What went right? What went wrong? And most importantly: What can we learn from the experience and apply in our own time?


October 1917: Workers in Power takes off with Paul LeBlanc’s “Introduction: Making Sense of October 1917.” His first sentence states a truth many historians and even some activists would like to forget: “A hundred years on, the Russian Revolution of 1917 continues to be as much of a political battlefield as it ever was.” (1)

LeBlanc frames his introduction by referring to four books about the revolution by the sympathetic American observers Louise Bryant, Bessie Beatty, John Reed and Albert Rhys Williams. He moves on to Leon Trotsky’s classic History of the Russian Revolution, William H. Chamberlin’s The Russian Revolution 1917-21, and the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) Short Course, whose writing was overseen by Joseph Stalin.

The four American observers, Trotsky and Chamberlin drew a similar picture of the revolution: a workers’ upsurge and insurrection led by a mass revolutionary party with a dynamic and often conflicted internal life and many leaders, of whom Lenin and Trotsky were the most prominent. The Short Course reduced the revolutionary process to the genius of the infallible Lenin and his disciples, of whom the chief was Stalin, leading the working class to victory.

LeBlanc identifies several Cold War scholars who followed the Short Course in stressing the unity of Lenin and Stalin, from a very different political viewpoint, and then returns to two left-wing historians who understood the difference, E.H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher. Both were attacked by the Cold Warriors and Stalinists, for whom the identity of Lenin and Stalin was a central tenet. LeBlanc briefly follows the academic debate to the present.

LeBlanc’s introduction shifts from the literature to his own explication. The Russian Revolution consisted of multiple insurgencies: a democratic revolution against the autocracy, a workers’ revolution against capitalism, a peasant revolution against the landowners, a soldiers’ revolution against senseless slaughter, a revolution of oppressed nationalities against Russian domination, and a revolution of women against patriarchy.

The introduction stresses that the revolution required a revolutionary workers’ party. “Essential for the making of the Russian Revolution was interplay between the broad masses of workers and peasants, in all their variety, with an organization of revolutionary intellectuals and activists having a predominantly working-class base and a Marxist ideology. This was the Bolshevik party whose central leader was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — known to the world as Lenin.” (13)

LeBlanc contrasts the Stalinist and Cold War versions of Lenin with the real person as described by the four American observers, Trotsky, Chamberlin, Carr, Deutscher and more recent sympathetic scholars, including Moshe Lewin, Stephen Cohen, Lars Lih and LeBlanc himself.

I was particularly interested in LeBlanc’s references to Lars Lih, author of Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? In Context. According to LeBlanc, he and Lih agree that the Bolshevik Party was an essentially democratic collectivity, not a one-man organizational dictatorship, and that Lenin’s model of the party he sought to build in the 1890s and early 1900s was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was certainly mass, working-class and democratic.

But LeBlanc thinks Lih goes too far when he “suggest[s] that Lenin’s outlook was basically indistinguishable from Kautsky’s prior to 1914 (after which Lenin denounced him for betraying their common revolutionary perspective). While there was certainly much overlap between Lenin and Kautsky, however, recent work by Tamás Krausz, Alan Shandro and others compellingly presents Lenin’s perspectives as having their own quite distinctive quality.” (14)

This seems to me a mild rejoinder to Lih, who in Lenin Rediscovered included LeBlanc with Tony Cliff and John Molyneux among activists who shared the “textbook view” that Lenin in his 1902 What Is to Be Done? expressed “worry about workers.” That is, they had a pessimistic view that workers naturally tend toward trade-unionist reformism and had to be led from outside by revolutionary intellectuals.

Lih contrasts this with what he sees as Kautsky’s and Lenin’s real view that the workers crave the information (“good news”) revolutionaries bring, and will become revolutionary when they have access to that information. (Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008: 14, 18-20.)

Lih quotes nothing from LeBlanc that suggests to me “worry about workers,” Lenin’s or his own, and I see nothing in LeBlanc’s introduction along that line. I agree with LeBlanc that Lenin’s organizational perspectives had a quite distinctive quality.

I raise this point not so much to side with LeBlanc, although I do, as to emphasize that these historical questions are complicated, differences are inevitable, and the tension among opinions can be clarifying. Did the organizational differences between Lenin and Kautsky arise only in 1914? Was Luxemburg right to criticize the SPD years before? Does it matter?

(See also the exchange on the same subject between Paul LeBlanc and Charlie Post around Post’s article “Party and Class in Revolutionary Crises” in ATC 150, January-February 2011.)

Returning to the text, LeBlanc asks, What went wrong? He places himself in the Trotskyist tradition.

“Key elements in this analysis flow from an understanding that economic democracy (socialism), allowing the free development of each person as the condition for the free development of all people (as Marx and Engels had posited in the Communist Manifesto), depends on the immense economic surplus and productivity, plus the complex of socio-economic and global relationships among people and resources, built up by the modern world capitalist economy. An attempt to build socialism in a single country with a low level of economic development cannot be successful … Stalin’s commitment to building “socialism in one country” was a recipe for bureaucratic tyranny.” (17)

LeBlanc concludes by asking, What now? Are there things that we can learn from the past and apply fruitfully to our own time? LeBlanc doesn’t try to answer those questions, but the book itself is an answer. Yes, there is much we can learn and apply.

Stages of the Revolution

François Vercammen’s contribution fills out the earlier chronology not only with detail but also with two critical elements. The section “Parties of the revolution” lists the contending parties, the positions which set them off from each other, and some of the internal debates.

“The international counter-revolution” section canvases the revolutions of 1918 to 1923, most importantly in Germany, which could have ended the isolation of Russia and opened the way for a socialist Europe. Their failure all but guaranteed the degeneration of the Soviet Union.

Vercammen summarizes well, but one aspect of his summary seemed off to me. Vercammen writes “in March and April 1917 the growth of a new opportunist wing (Stalin-Kamenev-Zinoviev), a majority — ready to support the liberal government, to accept the continuation of the war — which was opposed by the radical theses of Lenin” and “Finally, in October, there was the debate with the right wing of the party over insurrection, a discussion which was replayed again and again, in many different keys, during subsequent years.” (31)

Vercammen’s summary is correct, but oversimplified. How could central leaders of the Russian Revolution stray so far? Why were they still included in the top levels of the Bolshevik Party and the government? The danger is that readers may accept the glib dismissal of the “opportunist wing” without thinking about the issues.

LeBlanc praises Lih for his insistence that the Bolshevik Party was a collectivity and his attempts to rehabilitate some of Lenin’s comrades, including Kamenev and Zinoviev, who have been dismissed not only by Stalinists but also by Trotskyists. “Lih even suggests (quite controversially) that Kamenev was more right than wrong in the debate over Lenin’s ‘April Theses’ of 1917, and that he essentially won the debate.” (14)

Again, I agree with LeBlanc, not Lih, but activists need to understand both sides of such debates to assess their meaning and to apply their lessons to today.

Coup d’État or Social Revolution

Ernest Mandel’s contribution was published in 1992, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in August 1991. It was an attempt to counter the campaign of denigration of the October Revolution underway both in the West and in Eastern Europe.

Mandel rejects the arguments that the revolution was a coup d’état, a bloody utopian attempt to establish socialism immediately, or the work of a party-sect of fanatics. He places the revolution in the international context of the First World War. The Bolsheviks carried out their international duty by pulling Russia from the war, clearing the way for the German Revolution of 1918, which ended the war.

The Russian Revolution could not advance to socialism because it was isolated in a backward country surrounded by capitalist enemies. That was the responsibility of the reformist workers’ parties, which had supported the imperialist war and then opposed workers’ revolution in Russia and at home. Still, the revolution brought Russian workers and peasants peace, land, food, control of their places of work, and democracy — freedom of speech, press and assembly, and the right to elect deputies to the soviets, which formed the government.

Ernest Mandel asks whether the price of the October Revolution was too high and he answers that it was not. “The choice was truly either victory of the socialist revolution or victory of a counter-revolution that would have been among the most bloody ever known, which would have brought to power a Russian Hitler still worse than the German Hitler we know.” (67)

Having defended the revolution as a necessary and correct response to the circumstances, Mandel critically analyzes Bolshevik policies. “The bureaucratic degeneration, in the 1920s and 1930s, was certainly not initiated nor fundamentally caused by the orientation of this party. It also had its roots in the objective contradictions of Soviet society and the international situation which then prevailed.”

However, mistakes also contributed to the bureaucratization. “The most serious of these mistakes was the banning of the soviet parties at the very moment that the revolutionary government had definitively won the civil war of 1918-20.” (69)

Complex Problems

The situation was, I think, more complicated. The Bolshevik Party banned factions in April 1921, but not tendencies or election to leading bodies based on platforms. The party was initiating the New Economic Policy (NEP), partly substituting markets for the requisitions of the civil war. They knew this would lead to the development of capitalist relations in agriculture and artisan production. They felt that party unity was essential to combat this.

The ban on factions was, in my view, a mistake, if an understandable one. But the banning of soviet parties, that is, parties elected to the soviets, was even more complicated. I agree with E.H. Carr’s balance:

“The fiction of a legal opposition was, however, long since dead. Its demise cannot fairly be laid at the door of one party. If it was true that the Bolshevik regime was not prepared after the first few months to tolerate an organized opposition, it was equally true that no opposition party was prepared to remain within legal limits. The premise of dictatorship was common to both sides of the argument.” (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, 183)

The Bolsheviks had a dilemma. The opposition socialist parties, marginal by then, refused to remain within the legal limits. Should their transgressions be tolerated, which would strengthen the capitalist counterrevolution? Or should the parties be banned, which would strengthen the bureaucratic counterrevolution? There was no good answer.

Mandel asks, “Did the organizational conceptions of Lenin open the road to the excesses of the October Revolution and the Stalinist dictatorship?” (79) Like the other authors in this volume, he argues that they did not. “In reality, we have never seen a workers’ party with so many differences of opinion and so much freedom of expression, including in public, as the Bolshevik Party of this period — and certainly not the German or Austrian social-democratic parties even in their best moments.” (85)

Mandel concludes his article with a discussion of strategy. “The October revolution raises the key strategic question which confronts the whole of the socialist workers’ movement: how should a party, which identifies with the working class and socialism (or communism), behave in a revolutionary situation?” (90)

He rejects fatalism and voluntarism and makes the question more concrete: Should the Bolsheviks, via the soviets, have taken power in October 19177? He answers, “The revolutionary Marxists of today, like those of 1917 and the following years, remain convinced that the answer is an unreserved ‘yes.’” (93)

After reviewing the gains and losses of the revolution, Mandel concludes with a section called “Hope.” He quotes Maxim Gorky to express the historical meaning of the revolution: “’Come with us, towards the new life for which we are working. Forward to liberty and beauty of existence.’” (106)

The elephant in the room, so to speak, was that the Soviet Union had collapsed a few months before Mandel finished and published the article. Why no mention of it? I can’t answer that. But 25 years later the elephant requires a comment. Knowing that capitalism would be restored in the Soviet Union, should revolutionaries still give an unreserved “yes” to the seizure of power in 1917?

Capitalist restoration was always a possibility, even an inevitability, if the revolution didn’t spread to Western Europe. As Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, after the bureaucracy had consolidated power, “The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.” (

Whatever the outcome, the October Revolution put workers in power long enough to show what socialism could do, as well as the mortal danger of imperialist encirclement and bureaucratic degeneration. Given the chance, the Russian workers, led by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries, had to try.

Factory Committees and Legitimacy

David Mandel’s essay “Economic Power and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution” is a joy to read. It covers familiar ground, but with awe-inspiring detail.

The movement for workers’ control that arose in the wake of the February Revolution was not in the program of any socialist party. Workers organized factory committees, beyond trade unions, to ensure that production would continue despite the resistance and often sabotage of the owners.

Their initial goal was workers’ control, starting with access to information, not workers’ management. They were forced beyond control to management by the capitalists’ refusal to cooperate. The factory committees supported the soviets’ seizure of political power and sought to find their place as the economy was nationalized and militarized to preserve the revolution.

Beyond the rich detail, I found most interesting Mandel’s discussion of the tension between socialism and workers’ self-management.

“There is an obvious contradiction between centralism, an essential element of planning, and, therefore, of socialism, and self-management, also an essential ingredient of socialism, since the more power is concentrated in the centre, the less room there is for workers to participate meaningfully in managing the enterprise. This contradiction can, however, be managed (it need not be ‘antagonistic’) and can even become a positive factor, if certain conditions are present. In particular, the degree and scope of central control has to be limited and the economy must ensure the workers’ needs for material security at a minimally decent standard. In the absence of these conditions, self-management cannot be meaningful, nor can workers develop the consciousness necessary for them to willingly sacrifice local group interests to the more general class interests. In conditions of civil war, industrial collapse, and severe food shortage, the Soviet state could meet none of these conditions.“ (143)

David Mandel’s additional essay “The Legitimacy of the October Revolution,” makes the now-familiar argument that the October Revolution was a popular revolution, not a conspiracy by a small group of Marxist ideologues. Again, it covers familiar ground with awe-inspiring detail.

Apart from the detail, I was most struck by the author’s description of the subjective side of the bureaucratic degeneration: “But when the time came to make a new revolution, the working class, which had already led three revolutions, could not find the strength for a fourth.” (164)

The only place I found myself disagreeing with Mandel was his presentation of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) at the end of his factory committees essay. Mandel writes: “A 1987 Law on Enterprises provided for the election of works councils and directors. However, it was only after Gorbachev annulled this law in 1989, having decided to restore capitalism,that a genuine movement for self-management arose.” (148)

I’m sure he’s right about the genuine movement for self-management, and I’d like to learn more, since it had little coverage in the U.S. media. But in my view, even as late as 1989 Gorbachev sought to incorporate elements of bourgeois democracy (glasnost) and capitalist markets (perestroika) to revive the Soviet economy and preserve a milder version of bureaucratic rule.

Gorbachev’s policies failed, and set off a scramble of each against all leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, capitalist restoration, the economic and human disaster of the 1990s, and the consolidation of capitalism with a strong state under Vladimir Putin.

Again, my point is not to draw out a difference, but to illustrate that differences are inevitable and often useful in assessing complex historical questions.

Luxemburg and Lenin

The inclusion of pieces by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky gives readers a sense of what it was like to live through the October Revolution and its repercussions.

In her May 1917 article “The Old Mole” Luxemburg writes: “The outbreak of the Russian Revolution has brought an end to the historical standstill engendered by the continuation of the world war and the simultaneous failure of working-class struggle. It is as if a window had suddenly been opened in Europe whose musty air has been suffocating everyone for three years, admitting a fresh and invigorating breeze.” (166)

After a description of the effects of the invigorating breeze on German politics, she concludes “History, you old mole, you have done your work well! There now resounds through the International and the German proletariat a slogan, an admonition, only ever called up by great turning points in world history: Imperialism or Socialism! War or Revolution! There is no third way!” (171)

October 1917: Workers in Power includes two pieces by Lenin. The first is an appeal “To the Population” published on November 5, 1917, eleven days after the insurrection. The new government had as yet almost no administrative capacity. Lenin urges:

“Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers.

“Rally around your Soviets. Strengthen them. Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone. Establish the strictest revolutionary law and order, mercilessly suppress any attempts to create anarchy by drunkards, hooligans, counterrevolutionary officer cadets, Kornilovites and their like.” (173)

The second is a “Letter to American Workers” published in August 1918, five months after the civil war had begun and a month after the United States had had sent 13,000 troops as part of a great-power military intervention. Lenin denounces the imperialist war and appeals to American workers.

“The American people have a revolutionary tradition which has been adopted by the best representatives of the American proletariat, who have repeatedly expressed their complete solidarity with us Bolsheviks. That tradition is the war of liberation against the British in the eighteenth century and the Civil War in the nineteenth century…

“The American workers will not follow the bourgeoisie. They will be with us, for civil war against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the world and of the American labour movement strengthens my conviction that this is so…

“We know that help from you will probably not come soon, comrade American workers, for the revolution is developing in different countries in different forms and at different tempos (and it cannot be otherwise). We know that although the European proletarian revolution has been maturing very rapidly lately, it may, after all, not flare up within the next few weeks. We are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution, but this does not mean that we are such fools as to bank on the revolution inevitably coming on a definite and early date…Before the world revolution breaks out a number of separate revolutions may be defeated.” (181, 185)

Revolution came to Germany three months later and ended the world war. Exhaustion from the war and sympathy for the Russian Revolution made continued imperialist military intervention impossible. The foreign armies withdrew, and the Bolshevik-led government won the civil war. But Russia remained isolated, and the October Revolution was ultimately destroyed from within.

In Defense of October — Trotsky

October 1917: Workers in Power includes “In Defense of October,” a speech to the organization of Social-Democratic students in Copenhagen in November 1932. Leon Trotsky traveled there from Turkey, where he was in exile.

Trotsky thanks the students, says forthrightly that he is a political adversary of social-democracy, and presents his defense of the revolution. He asks three questions: 1) Why and how did this revolution take place? 2) What have been the results of the October Revolution? 3) Has the October Revolution stood the test?

He starts with theoretical concepts: the materialist conception of history, the place of revolutions in history, the law of uneven development (countries are at different levels of economic development), and of combined development (countries affect each other, so that backwards Russia had some of the most advanced production in Europe and hence a very advanced working class).

He moves to Russian specifics. The advanced working class was vastly outnumbered by the peasantry, whose lack of land made the agrarian question revolutionary. Russians made up 43% of the population and dominated the other 57%, making the oppressed nationalities a second reserve of the revolution.

Russia’s uneven and combined development meant that the Russian working class could arrive at power sooner than the proletariat of more economically advanced countries. The revolution would be an uninterrupted “permanent revolution,” in the sense that it would go beyond the bourgeois revolutions of the past and bring to power a workers’ government.

The workers in power would not only establish democracy, redistribute land, allow national self-determination, and enact a shorter workweek and other measures favorable to workers; it would also expropriate the big capitalists and open the way to socialism. The revolution could not succeed, however, unless it spread to other countries more advanced than Russia.

Trotsky lists the prerequisites for October, from the conditions of Russian society to the “dress rehearsal” of the 1905 Revolution to the imperialist war. “But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the Revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the proletariat in the Revolution. For this one more condition was necessary…The Bolshevik Party.” (200)

Trotsky acknowledges that “in the Soviet Union there is no Socialism as yet. The situation that prevails there is one of transition, full of contradictions, burdened with the heavy inheritance of the past and in addition is under the hostile pressure of the imperialist states. The October Revolution has proclaimed the principles of the new society. The Soviet Republic has shown only the first stage of its realization. Edison’s first lamp was very bad. We must learn how to discern the future.” (203)

Trotsky draws a positive balance sheet of the October Revolution and its place in history: “The October Revolution proclaimed and opened the domination of the proletariat. World capitalism suffered its first great defeat on Russian territory. The chain broke at its weakest link. But it was the chain that broke, and not only the link.” (208)

Trotsky ends his speech with a paean to the future of human society. The book continues with a valuable list of people, places, events and organizations, and a bibliography for readers who want more.

1917 and the Future

Trotsky’s speech is persuasive and moving to anyone open to its message, today as it was in 1932. I couldn’t help but think of the timing, however.

Four months later Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. Stalin and the leadership of the Communist International refused to acknowledge the defeat or to make any self-criticism. When no critical voices were raised anywhere in the International, Trotsky and his co-thinkers decided that new parties and a new International were needed. By the mid-1930s the Purge Trials in the Soviet Union showed that only another workers’ revolution could dislodge the bureaucracy.

Trotsky and his co-thinkers developed their analysis to take account of events, as revolutionaries have had to take account of events since then, including the incorporation of Eastern Europe into the Soviet Bloc; the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions; and the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and China.
Despite all the changes, revolutionaries today have every reason to think that the mole of history keeps burrowing. Future upsurges will come. When they do, the experience and lessons of the October Revolution will inspire and inform the revolutionaries who lead those upsurges. October 1917: Workers in Power is a fine compendium of those experiences and lessons.

[For additional discussion, see Suzi Weisman’s essay on the Russian Revolution in our previous issue, ATC 188 — ed.]

July-August 2017, ATC 189