80th Anniversary

The 1917 October Revolution:

How the Bolsheviks Seized Power

Revolutionary Worker #931, November 9, 1997

The ruling class preaches that armed revolution is impossible. They say the system is too powerful to be overthrown by oppressed people. And they say that even if revolution happened, the people would just make a mess out of everything, and end up suffering even worse. But history shows they are lying. History shows that revolution is possible and very liberating!

1997 marks the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In 1917 the working class in Russia rose in an armed insurrection and seized the capital city, Petrograd. It was the beginning of the first successful proletarian revolution in history.

The old Russian society was a brutal capitalist society, headed by a king called the Tsar. The vast majority of people were poor peasants who labored on land owned by big rich landowners. Workers were crammed into a few rapidly growing cities and forced to work in huge new factories under murderous conditions. The country was controlled by wealthy capitalists allied with the big landowners, who supported the Tsar and and the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1917 Russia was deep into World War I--a war that killed millions of people, as the big imperialist powers fought over who would have the biggest empire.

Poverty, brutal exploitation in the factories, hunger and the slaughter of war created a powerful revolutionary mood among the workers. The revolution was led by the Bolshevik Party, a revolutionary communist party headed by V.I. Lenin. Through years of civil war, the working class built its own army and beat back the exploiters, who were fighting to strangle the revolution.

Once power was in the hands of the working class and its party, it immediately became possible to start transforming society and liberating people! The new revolutionary government decreed that the land now belonged to the peasants. At the same time, this new revolutionary state withdrew Russia from World War I--and declared peace.

Most important, the seizure of power in 1917 made it possible to continue the revolution and establish a new, socialist society. The new revolutionary government created equality among peoples, and working people of all nationalities were free to participate in the process of revolutionizing all aspects of society. After Lenin died in 1924, the revolution continued under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Under extremely difficult conditions, the revolutionary people created a planned socialist industry and a collectively owned agriculture. Education and medicine were available to the masses of people for the first time. The new socialist state became an inspiration to revolutionary people all over the world. And during World War II, this new socialist state was strong enough to break the back of Hitler Germany, after the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia.

When Stalin died in 1953, capitalist forces inside the Communist Party, headed by Nikita Khrushchev, staged a coup. They destroyed the dictatorship of the proletariat and restored capitalism in 1956. The once-revolutionary Soviet Union became an empire run by big-time exploiters, capitalism was restored, and a life of suffering was brought back to the masses of people in the Soviet Union.

It was this state-capitalist system that broke apart in extreme crisis after 1989, causing the Soviet ruling class to undertake a transformation to a more privatized form of capitalism. Capitalist rulers throughout the world now often point to the suffering of the people and the economic crisis of this period of the Soviet Union's state-capitalism--in order to claim that revolution is useless.

Most people know very little about this first working class revolution. The October Revolution is an important part of the "hidden history" of the international proletariat. This history has been hidden and lied about because it proves that oppressed people can make a proletarian revolution and liberate themselves!

This week, the Revolutionary Worker begins reprinting a series on the October Revolution in Russia--honor of the revolution's 80th anniversary. This "hidden history" will help our readers understand more deeply how the proletariat made this revolution. This series is adapted from an article, "The October Revolution and the Military Tactics of Leninism," which appeared in the Spring 1993 issue of Revolution magazine.



In October 1917*, the proletariat of Russia rose up in arms, defeated the army of their oppressors, and overthrew the capitalist state. This proletariat, led by its vanguard communist party (the Bolsheviks), then went on to fight and win a grueling three-and-a-half-year civil war. They not only defeated and shattered the counterrevolutionary armed forces arising from within the country but also drove out the invading armies of 14 different imperialist powers, including the United States. They founded the world's first proletarian state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, covering one-sixth of the earth's land mass. For nearly 40 epoch years after that victory the proletariat used its state to support revolution around the world and to build a socialist society within the former Russian empire--all this as a first step to a communist world free of poverty, humiliation, war and the division of humanity into exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed.

This insurrection did not materialize out of nowhere. In 1914 Russia entered World War I against Germany and on the side of England and France. The war was a reactionary war, imperialist on both sides. The Russian ruling class expected an early victory and many people fell under their confident, brutal sway. Spirits were high as the troops marched off; the revolutionary high tide of just a few years before receded.

Instead of early victory, however, the war brought mass slaughter, famine and military stalemate. By late 1916 the Russian ruling class had begun to split over conduct of the war, while the proletarians in Petrograd and Moscow (Russia's largest and most industrial cities) gave the first hints of rebellion.

In February 1917 the mass discontent burst through the cracks made by the ruling class split. People demonstrating in Petrograd against hunger began to fight the police; in almost no time this snowballed into armed clashes involving most of the city. The main sections of the Russian ruling class, in alliance with the British and French, desperately maneuvered to prevent an even more profound upheaval. In a stunning development, they agreed that the Tsar of Russia would have to go. Tsars had ruled Russia as emperors for hundreds of years; now, in a few short days, their rule came crashing down, replaced by a provisional government.

With the Tsar thrown overboard, his ruling class opponents rushed to put things back in order and get on with the war. But once the masses had burst out in rebellion, it proved very difficult for the rulers to bottle them back up. The people had come into the streets for specific reasons. They were tired of the war, they were hungry, and they aimed to do something about both.

Very importantly, they had developed embryonic institutions of power: soviets, or councils, organized in factories, many army regiments, and later on in the rural areas. Through these soviets the masses demanded some sort of control in many different spheres of life, from choosing officers in the army to the imposition of discipline in the factories. Lenin analyzed the situation as one of dual power: the existence of the old state power side by side with these still very weak embryos of a new proletarian power. Lenin said this dual power couldn't and wouldn't last for long--one side would have to triumph over the other.

Meanwhile, the war--which lay at the root of the crisis--intensified; the new provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, committed itself to continuing to field an army in alliance with England and France. The other major parties besides the Bolsheviks with a following among the workers and poor--the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries**--supported Kerensky's policy.

The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, alone stood for a second revolution--they said that after overthrowing the Tsar (the first revolution), the time had come to move on to the proletarian socialist revolution. But in the immediate aftermath of February the Mensheviks had sway over most of the people. They played on the naiveté and good feelings of millions of people who were now acting on the political stage for the first time and on the influence of the middle class and peasantry, and they operated with the support of the government and old-line rulers. The Bolsheviks based themselves on the rock-bottom, rock-hard proletariat and also had significant support among rank-and-file soldiers in the army. But they had to win even their own base to grasp more firmly the need for another revolution, reach out to broader masses, and generally hasten the conditions that would make it possible.

In the months after February, the Bolsheviks exposed the Kerensky government at every turn. The Bolsheviks fought side by side in the streets with the masses, as the people began to learn through experience that only another revolution could solve their problems.

In late June, Kerensky announced a new military offensive. By July it had turned into a debacle, grinding up tens of thousands of soldiers. Infuriated, a section of the revolutionary workers of Petrograd took to the streets in armed demonstrations and were joined by rebellious rank-and-file soldiers. The proletarians and soldiers were provoked by assaults by reactionaries and fought back. Two sections of the people clashed with arms, and several hundred people died in the battles.

Despite the armed skirmishes in the streets, the Bolsheviks did not think that the masses could at that point make a serious attempt at seizing power. While standing with the masses, the Bolsheviks essentially organized them in a more or less orderly retreat. The government, however, was stung by what it saw in the streets of Petrograd, and went on a rampage. It issued a warrant for Lenin's arrest and forced him underground, and it whipped up reactionaries to run wild against proletarians. But the Bolsheviks withstood the repression and the whole thing served ultimately to toughen the proletariat. A conviction hardened among a section of the people that the Provisional Government would not peacefully give in to pressure and that another revolution was necessary. By August, the Bolsheviks had rebounded, and their membership and following among the proletariat grew rapidly.

At the same time, a section of the Russian ruling class had lost patience with Kerensky's inability to consolidate power and crush the proletariat once and for all. They turned to a general of the Russian army, Kornilov, to overthrow the Provisional Government in a coup and institute direct military rule. In late August the Kornilovites began a march on Petrograd. Thrown into a panic by Kornilov's march and fighting for its very survival, the Provisional Government agreed to lift the ban on the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, for their part, had analyzed that Kornilov's coup would mean not only a removal of the (reactionary) Provisional Government but more importantly a leap to the total crushing of the revolution and the masses. They decided to mobilize the proletariat to take defense of the city against Kornilov into its own hands.

Proletarians, together with revolutionary-minded soldiers, dug trenches and built fortifications around the city. Veterans drilled workers in preparation for battle, training them to use arms. Agitators were dispatched to infiltrate Kornilov's troops.

Faced with a city in arms, his support in the ruling class rapidly melting away, and dealing with divisions and opposition in his own ranks, Kornilov was decisively rebuffed and arrested.

The defeat of Kornilov awakened the people to the serious threat of violent suppression of the revolution. Even more important, proletarians had gotten vital experience in military struggle and organization; now revolutionary warfare itself became the currency of the day. People were increasingly fed up with the vacillations of the Provisional Government, and more and more wanted a final trial of strength. The sentiment grew that only a revolutionary regime--a purely soviet government, replacing the Provisional Government--could and would deal with the painful running sores of war and hunger.

Weighing all these factors and more, Lenin concluded in early September that the time had finally ripened for the Bolsheviks to launch an insurrection. The period of exposure, of mass demonstrations, even of armed skirmishes with reactionaries was ending. The stage of working to win the masses and gathering political strength: this stage had ended. The Party had to go over to immediate preparation for armed seizure of power.


* Before the 1917 Revolution, Russia worked on a different calendar than the Gregorian calendar, in use in the Western world, 13 days behind Europe, the Americas and most parts of Asia and Africa. The October Revolution--which took place between October 24 and 27 on the Russian calendar--actually was going on in early November according to the modern calendar. After the Revolution this was changed. For this article, we will use the old Russian dates.

** The Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had originally been part of the same party. They split over many questions of revolution vs. reform. Most Mensheviks had supported Russia's involvement in the first world war, while the Bolshevik policy welcomed the defeat of their own government and worked to transform the imperialist war into a civil war. The Mensheviks had a great deal of support in the urban middle classes. The Socialist-Revolutionaries were neither socialist nor revolutionary, but a party that supported the interests of the middle and upper peasants in their fight against landlord and Tsar.

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