Lenin and the First Communist Revolutions, III

  • The Russian Revolution: March, 1917

    World War I broke out in 1914. Lenin spent the war years in exile, brooding over how carry out his slogan: "Turn the imperialistic war into civil war." His antipathy towards the rest of the European socialist movement turned into hatred when, contrary to their internationalist pledges, the socialists of almost every belligerent country loyally voted to support the war efforts of their respective nations. At the same time, this left disaffected anti-war wings of the European socialist parties who would become a fruitful pool of recruits for the Bolsheviks.

    Lenin and most of his associates either lived in foreign exile in neutral countries, or languished in the Czar's Siberian prisons. Few of them were present to even participate in, let alone lead, the first Russian Revolution which occurred in March of 1917. The March revolution forced the Czar to abdicate, established freedom of the press, and granted a blanket amnesty to political prisoners in Siberia - including terrorists. A much freer Russia seemed to be on the horizon. But ironically, liberalization inadvertently summoned back to Russia a small army of Bolsheviks from the far corners of the planet, often (as in Lenin's case) with transportation paid by the German Kaiser:

    Location of Bolshevik Leaders in February, 1917
    Bolshevik Leaders Location
    Lenin Switzerland
    Radek Switzerland
    Zinoviev Switzerland
    Bukharin New York
    Litvinov London
    Antonov-Ovseenko Paris
    Dzerzhinsky Moscow
    Latsis Petrograd
    Molotov Petrograd
    Kirov Vladikavkaz
    Stalin Kureika (Siberia)
    Ordzhonikidze Pokrovsk (Siberia)
    Sverdlov Turukhansk (Siberia)
    Kamenev Achinsk (Siberia)
    Rykov Narym (Siberia)
    Location of Soon-to-Be Bolshevik Converts in February, 1917
    Trotsky New York
    Chicherin London
    Uritsky Stockholm

    After the Czar's abdication, power passed to a Provisional Government appointed by a temporary committee of the Duma, which proposed to share power to some extent with councils of workers and soldiers known as "soviets." Following a brief and chaotic period of fairly democratic procedures, a mixed body of socialist intellectuals known as the Ispolkom secured the right to "represent" the soviets. The democratic credentials of the soviets were highly imperfect to begin with: peasants - the overwhelming majority of the Russian population - had virtually no say, and soldiers were grossly over-represented. The Ispolkom's assumption of power turned this highly imperfect democracy into an intellectuals' oligarchy. As Pipes explains, the Ispolkom "was not representative of the workers and soldiers, for its members were not elected by the Soviet but, as in 1905, nominated by the socialist parties. Members of the Ispolkom represented not workers and soldiers but their respective party organizations, and could be replaced at any time by others of these parties." In short, "Rather than serving as the executive organ of the Soviet, therefore, the Ispolkom was a coordinating body of socialist parties, superimposed on the Soviet and speaking in its name." (The Russian Revolution)

    In sum, the abdication of the Czar left power somewhere in the hands of the Provisional Government and the Ispolkom, but no one knew quite where. This confused structure not only left the new government vulnerable to manipulation by tiny minorities claiming to speak for millions of people who had never heard of them; it also invited strong-willed factions with guns to try their hand at a coup d'etat. To add to these problems, leadership fell into the hands of one Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist with the foresight and resolve of Hamlet.

    But these structural problems would probably have not been terminal if Kerensky and the Provisional Government had the common sense to make a separate peace with the Germans. They did not. With bravado, they swore to fight on, earning the enmity of soldiers dying at the front, peasants forced to turn over their grain at below-market prices, and city dwellers wanting for food. Energy and hope which should have been spent laying the groundwork for prosperity and freedom was instead wasted upon continuing the hopeless struggle against the Kaiser. And while the Provisional Government focused on the foreign invader, the Bolsheviks under Lenin's leadership prepared to seize power by dominating the soviets, violent action, or both. As Lenin explained his position:

    No support to the Provisional Government; exposure of the utter falsity of its promises... unmasking, instead of admitting, the illusion-breeding "demand" that this government, a government of capitalists, cease being imperialistic. (April Theses)

    Like his pupils and emulators Mussolini and Hitler, Lenin won power by first breaking the spirit of those who stood in his way, persuading them that they were doomed. The Bolshevik triumph in October was accomplished nine-tenths psychologically: the forces involved were negligible, a few thousand men at most in a nation of one hundred and fifty million, and victory came almost without a shot being fired. The whole operation seemed to confirm Napoleon's dictum that the battle is won or lost in the minds of men before it even begins.
    Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution

    A skillful political entrepreneur, Lenin coined the simple slogan "Peace, Land, Bread" to signify his determination to make a separate peace with the Germans and recognize the peasants' spontaneous seizures of land. While he had no intent of keeping his promises if they proved inconvenient, Lenin realized that power is often too expensive to purchase without writing a few bad checks. The Bolsheviks added a second slogan, "All power to the Soviets," realizing that the soviets were unrepresentative of Russian opinion to begin with, and had swiftly become the mouthpieces of socialist intellectuals in general, and themselves in particular. Even so, the Bolsheviks remained a minority party: at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets in the early summer of 1917, the Bolsheviks won 105 delegates, far less than their 285 seats won by the Social Revolutionaries and the 248 held by the Mensheviks. After a July Bolshevik coup failed and quite a few Bolsheviks were arrested, it appeared that Lenin's day might have already come and gone. Lenin even fled to Finland, leaving the party under the leadership of Trotsky, who had only joined a few months earlier. Power seemingly eluded Lenin's grasp, but he would soon get his second chance.

    Planning for Leninism: Forging the Vanguard Party
    The Russian Coup d'Etat: November, 1917