ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Russian Revolution Centenary SpecialSubscribe to Russian Revolution Centenary Special

Revolutionary Expectations in 1917 Russia

The February Revolution of 1917 not only overthrew the Russian monarchy but raised great expectations among the population. The essay looks at the expectations of several key segments—workers, soldiers, women, peasants, upper and middle classes, and nationalities. As the Provisional Government was slow to fulfil their expectations, the population turned leftward politically. In a matter of months this led to the rise of the extreme left and the Bolshevik seizure of power.

The Bolsheviks Come to Power in Petrograd

How did the Bolsheviks win out in the struggle for power in 1917 Petrograd? The author, among the world’s leading historians on the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian civil war, revisits the conclusions of two of his major works, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (1968) and The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (1976), to grapple with this still thorny and deeply politicised question.

The Bolshevik Heritage

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is one of the most enigmatic events of modern history. It arose out of massive popular disgust with war; yet heralded a civil war leading to an even greater loss of life. The revolution began with a quest for democracy, yet resulted in a regime wherein the political police took centre stage in the lives not only of political opponents but of the ruling party itself. It was legitimised in the name of the soviets, yet in three years these organs of workers’ power were reduced to shadows of their former selves. Its success was based upon a worker–peasant alliance, yetthat alliance was torn to shreds long before the collectivisation of the 1930s. Was it one revolution or two? Was the second one the “real” revolution or did it put an end to the aspirations of the first? Did Bolshevism signify living proof of the so-called Marxist “laws of history,” or the completely contingent nature of historical events? These questions are part of the enigma of Bolshevism. A century after the revolution unfolded, we have the benefit not only of hindsight, but also of a massive, hitherto unseen archive, made accessible after 1991. An entire century passed in the shadow of 1917.It is time to think of it afresh.

Revolutionary Democracy in 1917 and the Bolsheviks

It was the highly proletarianised Bolshevik party that was central to revolutionary democracy coming into being in 1917, but the bulk of the non-Bolshevik left chose to go along with liberalism. Hostile to any notion of revolutionary democracy in opposition to bourgeois institutions, the major non-Bolshevik left parties felt more at ease with the liberals than with the “dark” proletarian masses, who appeared uneducated or semi-educated, and who seemed to be moved by illusions rather than the left intelligentsia’s doctrinaire understanding of Marxism. What mainly killed the fledgling revolutionary democracy was the reluctance of the other socialist parties to form a government with the Bolsheviks on the basis of an acceptance of the Congress of Soviets as the foundation of that proposed government’s power. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries pulling out of the Soviet government and the coming of the Civil War did the rest.

Why Leninism and Bolshevism Are Not the Same

The essay closely investigates and questions the assumptions that Leninist theory is more or less a consistent whole, which must be accepted or rejected in its entirety, and that Bolshevik policy under Tsarism was the direct result of Leninist theory—that Bolshevism and Leninism are synonyms. It tries to determine the position of Lenin’s theory in its historical-materialist context, concentrating on his method of analysis and his theories of proletarian consciousness and the revolutionary party. It then deduces some important internal inconsistencies in Lenin’s methodology and organisational theory, and attempts to prove that Bolshevik practice was in no way Leninist. What then follows is a brief formulation of some consequences.

Bolsheviks and Feminists

Marxist attempts at integrating gender in the class-struggle framework was uneven in the Russian revolutionary movement. A class reductionism often held back the Bolsheviks, but contests with the liberal feminists, as well as the objective reality of more women entering the labour force, led to changes. Women activists took the lead in this. The Revolution of 1917 saw a much greater degree of women’s involvement. Women workers provided leadership in the early stages of the February Revolution, though it often remains unacknowledged by mainstream (including mainstream left) historiography of the revolution. At the same time, gendering the practice of class went hand in hand with a sharp rise in class issues against undifferentiated feminism, for liberal feminism supported the war and the bourgeois Provisional Government.

The Russian Revolution, the Third International and the Colonial Question

The establishment of the Communist International and the installation of Soviet power contributed to a new understanding of the colonial question, as revealed in the deliberations of the Comintern Congresses. The setback of the European revolutions largely contributed to the recognition of the crucial importance of the colonial question by the Comintern, ideologically and organisationally. But the relations between the communist parties in the colonies and the metropolitan countries, together with the growing “Russification” of the Comintern, blocked many of its possibilities.
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