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Why was there a revolution in Russia in 1917?

MARY DAVIS looks into the circumstances which sparked a world-shaking popular revolt

THE centenary of the Russian Revolution has prompted copious, mainly unsympathetic, publications most of which confine themselves to a historical narrative of selected events attempting to describe the revolution.

But for those of us who understand that the October Revolution marks the first time in human history that the majority class (workers and peasants) took and held state power, this centenary holds a special significance and requires an explanation based on historical materialism. This means attempting to answer the question WHY, rather than how, the revolution took place in, demographically the most unlikely country — Russia.

It was improbable for three reasons. Firstly, 80 per cent of the population of the Russian empire were peasants and mostly illiterate. In addition, the Bolsheviks after the first revolution in February were in a minority in the soviets, but within eight months had won a position of leadership leading to the toppling of the Provisional Government and the establishment of a socialist republic.

Finally, and perhaps most remarkable of all, is the fact that the revolution survived five years of civil war and wars of intervention in which the Red Army was not only fighting White Russians, but also the armies of 14 interventionist countries.

These three factors clearly unlock the key to appreciating the significance of the October Revolution, but on their own they don’t explain why it could have happened in Russia.

Until 1917 Marxists had always understood that a socialist revolution was expected to occur in the most advanced capitalist country because industrialisation had resulted in the massive expansion of the working class.

Arising from this commonly accepted Marxist view, Russian exceptionalism is usually explained by asserting that the Bolshevik revolution happened because Russia was “the weakest link in the imperialist chain.” This explanation whilst true is inadequate, largely because it fails to understand both the “peasant question” and correspondingly the importance of the Bolshevik Party.

These two points are linked because the forging of a worker-peasant alliance by the Bolsheviks was not only central to the success of the revolution, but it also marked an important new theoretical departure within Marxism.

The practical application of the concept of a worker-peasant alliance proved not only to be critical in Russian conditions, but has also been central to liberation struggles in colonial and post-colonial countries. It was an original development of Marxist theory because hitherto the peasantry had been written off as a reactionary force, often using the example of the French peasantry — citing as evidence their negative role in the 1848 revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune.

Lenin analysed the Russian peasantry in a different way. The emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861 meant that the peasantry was a comparatively new and very numerous social force.

Lenin studied this in two important books, The Agrarian Question in Russia (1908) and The development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).

In summary, he rejected the view of the peasantry as single homogenous group and instead distinguished within them three economic groups.

The richest peasants, the kulaks, accounted for around 12 per cent of the rural population. Next came the middle peasants at 7 per cent (a steadily diminishing group).

Finally, the largest group, ever increasing numerically, the poor peasants, accounting for 81 per cent of the rural population. They farmed very small plots which yielded insufficient to sustain them and, as a result, they were dependent on wage labour. In sharp contrast to the peasantry as a whole, the big landowners, 0.002 per cent of the rural population, owned 27% of land.

Lenin also noted that capitalism was growing in Russia, not only in heavy industry (with massive amounts of British and French investment), but also in agriculture.

The 1905 revolution prompted Lenin to advocate a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” This reflected his view that whereas the kulaks and middle peasants would continue to support capitalist penetration in agriculture, the poor peasants, as shown by their support of the 1905 revolution, would not.

The 1905 revolution worried the Russian government and Stolypin, its new Prime Minister (1906-11), was particularly anxious to resolve the peasant revolt by increasing capitalist development in agriculture.

The principal aim of his reforms was to counteract peasant disturbances by stimulating the growth of a prosperous agricultural class which would have a vested interest in preserving the regime.

Lenin described this as the “Prussian path” in agriculture. By this he meant capital in alliance with landowners. (Junker landowners and the industrial bourgeoisie in the Prussian case).

The Stolypin reforms were unsuccessful mainly because instead of relieving the situation in the countryside they added a new dimension to peasant tensions. Poor peasants (the overwhelming majority) maintained an aspiration to see the redistribution of noble estates, regarding this as the only real solution to the problem of land hunger. This was a policy wholeheartedly supported by the Bolsheviks.

The “reforms,” despite their potential to split the peasantry, were disrupted by Stolypin’s assassination in 1911 and, more importantly, by the outbreak of war in 1914. The war put the final nail in the coffin of 1906/7 measures almost literally.

It was responsible for the death of around 10 million conscripted peasant soldiers and two million horses. The Bolshevik slogan of “Peace, Bread and Land” thus had a direct appeal to the majority of peasants.

Thus Marxist theory, developed by Lenin, was essential to understand Russian reality, especially the Russian peasantry. The concrete application of this Marxist analysis meant that the Bolsheviks could play the leading role in developing the theory, strategy and tactics necessary for revolutionary change. This is a key factor explaining the October Revolution.

When Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917, he published an important document known as the April Theses. This set out the Bolshevik policy to transform the Russian bourgeois/landowner republic into a socialist state.

In effect, it provided a programme around which revolutionary workers, soldiers and peasants rallied.

It called for opposition to World War I and hence opposition to the unelected Provisional Government. Opposition to the war was particularly important in building the worker-peasant alliance since the peasantry formed the bulk of the hapless conscripted Russian army.

The April Theses identified the February 1917 revolution as a transitional stage to a full socialist revolution, after which landed estates and banks would be confiscated and nationalised and production and distribution would be under the control of worker and peasant soviets.

This is precisely what ensued after the October socialist revolution. So, far from being a “coup” or a “seizure of power” the revolution would not have been possible without mass support for these policies.

This was clearly seen during the horrors of the civil war and the wars of intervention. Multitudes of workers (including women) and peasants joined the Red Army.

During the five years of warfare, there were massive food shortages. Bolsheviks thus appealed to the peasantry to refrain from hoarding grain.

As a result, Committees of Poor Peasants were formed in every village to confiscate hoarded grain in order to feed starving towns.

Together with the victorious Red Army, this saved the revolution from starvation and defeat. But its success overall could not have been achieved without the support of the majority of the population — peasants and workers.


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