What Was the Bolshevik Revolution?

Volumes have already been written on the subject of the Bolshevik Revolution and many more will be written in the years to come. Here we can only try to note its essential character.

Many Americans are under the delusion that the Russian Revolution was merely a revolution of industrial workers against a small but powerful group of capitalists. This misunderstanding is due to the fact that most people think it took place according to the predictions of the German socialist writer Karl Marx.

In his most famous works—Capital and The Communist Manifesto—Marx had expressed the belief that the communist revolution would take place in a highly industrialized country like Germany, or possibly Britain.

Russia did not fit Marx’s prophecy

Actually, nothing could have fitted Karl Marx’s revolutionary formula less than did Russia in 1917. At that time, as has already been pointed out, Russia was a backward agricultural country. Much of its industry, then still in its infancy, had been financed largely by foreign, not native capital. In 1917 the vast majority of the population were peasants, and the industrial workers, although growing in numbers, were still in a very small minority.

Even though efforts were being made to introduce legislation regarding wages, hours, and conditions of work, factory workers at that time were living in wretched conditions. These economic hardships caused them to play a far greater part in the November revolution than would have been expected from their numbers.

The really large group of underprivileged people in Russia, however, were not the industrial workers, but the peasants. When they were freed from serfdom in 1861, the peasants got some land and the promise of more. In 1914 there were few really landless peasants. Most peasant families owned land either individually or as part of a collective group called the mir or commune. But their holdings were so small that most of them had to work as tenants or farm hands on the estates of big landowners, or on the farms of richer peasants, known as kulaks (tight fists), or on land owned by the state or the church.

In 1917 Russia had not only factory workers who sought to overthrow an industrial capitalist class, but masses of peasants without enough land to make their living on. They wanted more land and hoped to obtain it at the expense of such great landowners as the monarchy, the nobility, the church, and most important of all, the state. The actual coup that brought Lenin to power, however, was carried out by a group of professional revolutionaries, with the support of the mutinous Petrograd garrison. It is important to note that this coup overthrew the Kerensky government, which was seeking to establish a democratic regime after having overthrown czarism in March 1917.

The Bolshevik leaders

The November revolution was led by a group of intellectuals, most of whom had never seen a worker’s bench or used a peasant’s plow. Many of them—notably Lenin and Trotsky—had lived in exile abroad because their views had brought them into conflict with the czarist government. The guiding spirit of the revolution was Lenin, who came from the intelligentsia and had spent his life not in manual work but in writing and speaking.

Factory workers played an important role in destroying the old government and in defending the new Soviet regime as it proceeded to socialize production (first of all in industry and trade, then in agriculture). But measured by the size of the forces engaged, the revolution of 1917 was chiefly an agrarian revolt. The slogan of the Bolshevik leaders in 1917 was “Peace, Land, and Bread.”

Bread was desired by everyone, since the war had disrupted transportation and created shortages of food in the cities. Peace, too, was desired by many, especially by the soldiers at the front, who lacked munitions. But land, above all, was desired by the peasants, who for 50 years had suffered from acute “land hunger.”

In 1917 many peasants thought they were going to oust all the big landowners and become individual owners of land themselves. This did not happen, in the long run, because the Soviet government had no intention of transforming peasants into individual property owners. The Soviet leader feared that ownership of land by the peasants would restore capitalism in another form. The Soviet authorities were determined to destroy all possible roots of capitalism in Russia. Their plan was to create the same status for workers in factories—who do not own the plant and merely receive wages for operating machinery—and for workers on farms where the peasants would also become wage earners. The land, like the factories, banks, and natural resources of the country was to become the property not of individual peasants but of the state, which was to reward the peasants for their work.

Government vs. peasants

The plans of the Soviet leaders met with bitter and stubborn opposition on the part of the peasants. They fought the government tooth and nail for many years—sometimes actively, most often passively. They sometimes refused to sow or else to gather the harvest, and sometimes they damaged stores of grain and other foodstuffs. The government retaliated by various measures of repression. Sending offenders to remote areas of the country where they were forced to work on roads, railways, and other tasks was a favorite penalty.

Now practically all land in Russia is the property of the state. There are a few large-scale state farms which are run like factories, the workers being paid regular wages. Most of the land, however, is cultivated by collective farms whose members receive a share of the farm’s net profits. The most crucial struggle of the Soviet leaders was not a struggle waged by industrial workers against bankers, factory owners, and landlords. It was a struggle between the Bolsheviks and the peasants. To the extent that the Soviet government claimed to represent factory workers it was also a struggle between workers and peasants, between the town and the country.

Catching up with the outside world

This struggle was waged side by side with the other great struggle of the Bolshevik Revolution—the effort to transform backward Russia into a modern industrial state that could be independent of the outside world. The Soviet leaders not only wanted to liberate Russia from a dependence on the outside world which, in their opinion, threatened to make Russia a colony of advanced industrial powers. They also wanted to make the country safe from attack by one or more “capitalist” states.

Today the state owns all the country’s resources—factories, mines, and agricultural and mineral products of all kinds. Russia has thus jumped from the stage of primitive agriculture, with barely the beginnings of industrialization, to large-scale development of all resources by the state, either directly or through state cooperatives. In the main, it has skipped over the period of large individual enterprise, financed by private capital at private risk for private gain, which characterized the transition of Europe and the New World from primarily agricultural to primarily industrial economy.

Within the span of 25 years Russia has telescoped many of the revolutions which in other countries were spread over several centuries. In that brief period it has seen the downfall of monarchy and aristocracy, the breaking up of large landed estates, the advanced stages of the Industrial Revolution, and a wholesale development of state ownership and operation. This breathtaking pace in a country whose leaders, rightly or wrongly, considered it to be constantly menaced by a hostile “capitalist encirclement,” explains much that has seemed chaotic in Russia.

From EM 46: Our Russian Ally (1945)