Revolution from below in 1917

One of the most extraordinary features of the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the speed with which ordinary people began to assert and protect their rights and interests. The success of the February Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar left a power vacuum in Russia that was not really filled for several years. Almost instantaneously ordinary people around the country took advantage of the newly-opened political space to set up committees of various kinds to represent themselves. Across urban and rural Russia, from Archangel in the Arctic circle to Simferopol’ on the Black Sea and from Brest-Litovsk on the Polish border to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean a vast process of self-organisation took place. It did not begin in any one place. It exploded from many independent sources.

As the autocratic regime decayed within days, those whom it had oppressed cleverly sought out its weak points and pushed it closer to oblivion. Most spectacularly the armed services began to counteract the authority of senior officers. Soldiers, forced by the war planners into deadly and pointless offensives at the front, not only refused to obey such orders but even started to arrest officers. In the tense atmosphere on-board ships, especially in the Baltic Fleet which had largely been confined to port for the duration of the war, hated disciplinarians among the senior officers were assaulted and even murdered. In a famous case the Admiral of the fleet, Viren, was thrown overboard to die in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. In cities, covert worker groups began to emerge from the underground where they had been driven by tsarist oppression. Trades unions were formed. Factory committees were set up. In the villages, the traditional village gathering (mir) shape-shifted into village and parish (volost’) committees to present a united peasant front to local landowners. At the head of this process, where workers and peasants interfaced with political activists from organised parties, was the well-known but still remarkable, web of local and regional soviets.

Where did this extraordinary impulse come from and what were its characteristics? One can only speculate about its origin. Perhaps because of the odd combination of neglect and oppression from the state, and perhaps as a legacy from the not-too-distant era of serfdom which had only been abolished in 1861, the ordinary population had evolved a self-defence strategy of combining together against the monstrous pressures of the outside world. Certainly, the peasant commune (mir) was strengthened after 1861. Recruitment into the city for many workers did not break up their solidarity as they were frequently affiliated to “zemliachestva,” clubs for people from the same provincial town or region. The Orthodox religion may also have had an effect. It preached collective rather than individual redemption and set itself the mission of gathering all people together under the protection of God, a concept known as sobornost’ in Russian.

Whatever the inspiration, there can be no doubt that a powerful force was being created, all the more so for its native wit and intelligence. Participants, be they soldiers, sailors, peasants, artisans or factory workers, showed an extraordinary sophistication. They did not simply riot and loot but set up more complex goals and used more subtle tactics. Soldiers and sailors did not simply turn against all officers. They discriminated between them. Cruel and unpopular disciplinarians were dismissed to be replaced by other officers in whom the men had confidence. In villages, direct confrontation with landowners was rare in the early days. Rents were reduced but not refused altogether. Land was encroached upon but only later was it directly expropriated. In cities, factory committees aimed for gradual improvements in pay and conditions, not wholesale takeovers. Red Guards were set up, not to loot, but to protect factories and residential areas from thieves and criminals. One of the most underestimated features behind popular action, at least in the early stages, was the underlying consciousness that Russia was at war and any internal weakness would only help the enemy. All branches of this popular movement wanted to strengthen and defend Russia, not help to destroy it.

What impact did this immense process have and what became of it? Without doubt the popular movement had an immense impact on the outcome of the revolution. At the highest political levels it was deeply mistrusted by many, even supposed leftists and supporters of the peasants such as the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). Much of this political elite, consisting of educated intellectuals, feared what they believed to be the wild and anarchic practices of the masses, or ‘dark people’. The elite strove to bring them under their control and within the discipline of party and constitutional politics. In the long run they might have had a chance but revolutions do not have a run long run. Everything can change in a moment and Russia was no exception.

In late August the army chief, General Kornilov, attempted to take over the government from civilian politicians headed by Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky. Kornilov hated the committees and the popular movement above all. He wanted to disband them (especially those in factories and the armed services) and restore the old discipline, backed up by the death penalty. Not only did his attempted coup fail ignominiously but it was the rallying cry for the opposite of what he wanted to take place. Afraid that counter-revolution might take away their new-found rights, the committees exploded in anger. Peasants increased the number of land seizures. Workers, impelled by the desire to keep factories running and preserve their jobs and thereby their incomes, took over more and more of the managerial functions of the owners who were beginning to abandon their factories or try to shut them down, disperse the workforce and wait to re-open in better times. Soldiers and sailors lost confidence in many more of their officers who covertly or overtly supported Kornilov. Everyone lost confidence in Kerensky who was believed to have encouraged Kornilov until he discovered he was himself under threat.

The masses came to the collective conclusion, expressed through the soviets, that they should take power themselves. Nearly all the political elite deserted them in this enterprise. SR governors ordered troops against rebellious peasants who were seizing land. Liberals were horrified at the assault on property. Only a handful of leftists went along, mainly Bolsheviks, plus a few anarchists and a minority of SR and Menshevik supporters disgusted by the leadership deserting the peasants and workers. In the name of mass protest the Bolsheviks conducted the overthrow of the Kerensky government and set up what appeared briefly to be soviet power. The masses had provided the opportunity. They appeared to have gotten what they wanted: soviet power as the pinnacle of their self-organisation through local and regional committees. Russia would be a remarkable experiment in direct, mass self-government.

As we know, that was not what happened. The reasons why it did not happen constitutes another complex story. Suffice it to say that, having been gifted power by the masses, the Bolsheviks used it for their own utopian ends. They had a precise idea of what the future should be and they sacrificed everything to reach it. They failed to take the majority of the people along with them and, over decades, the project decayed and eventually collapsed. Could the vision of the masses have succeeded where Bolshevism failed? Many authors say no. They follow Gorky’s analysis, one of the most distrustful of all. The “dark people,” peasants especially, were ignorant, drunken, superstitious and narrow-minded. All they could do was destroy. However, the more researchers look into the issues, the more the masses appear to have possessed a more sophisticated agenda and a more intelligent set of tactics than that proposed by Gorky. Could there have been another kind of Russian Revolution of soviet democracy and popular self-organization? Unfortunately, history allows no re-runs. We will never know but we might hope.

Christopher Read, The University of Warwick (UK)

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