Mandel, David. “The Legitimacy of October” (2016)


In this article, David Mandel defends the legacy of the October Revolution, documenting how class forces were aligned on the eve of revolution and the extent of popular support for the political project carried forward by the Bolshevik Party.
Source: David Mandel, “On the historical legitimacy of the October Revolution” Ocotber 1917, Ed. Paul Le Blanc, Merlin Press, 2016.

The Legitimacy of October

To argue in support of the historical legitimacy of the October Revolution and of the suppression of capitalism that followed is to go against the currently dominant viewpoint in the historiography of the revolution, as well as the position of the present Russian government. Of course, to defend the historical legitimacy of October is not to claim it was inevitable. Nothing in the history of a people is inevitable. There are always alternative paths of development, especially in periods of revolutionary crisis. But a liberal-democratic path of development– and that was the aim of the February Revolution, even among workers – was not a choice available to Russian society. Yet, that is the argument, explicit or implicit, of those who would deny legitimacy to the October Revolution.
What does one mean by “historical legitimacy”? Above all it means that October was not an arbitrary act organized behind the back of Russian society by a group of Marxist ideologues who were bent on carrying out, at any price, a “socialist experiment”. That is how the October Revolution is presented in a draft “Concept of the New Educational-Methodological Complex on National History,” ordered by the present Russian government. In that document one can read, for example, that “The Great Russian Revolution that occurred in 1917, and also the “Soviet experiment” that began in October 1917, by their impact on world processes, are recognized as some of the most important events of the twentieth century.” The February Revolution is still thus considered “great” (although it did overthrow the Tsar, whom the present-day Russian Church has elevated to sainthood, while among the people, sinful as it was, he was daubed “Nikolai the Bloody”). But October is reduced to an “experiment”, in other words to an arbitrary act that deviated Russia from its natural path of development, presumably one of capitalist democracy.
My own research into the revolutionary period supports the conclusion that October was indeed a popular revolution. For workers and peasants, its aim was to save February’s democratic revolution from the threat of counterrevolution at the hands of the propertied classes, the bourgeoisie and the aristocratic landowners. And since this second revolution was directed against those classes and was led by the workers’ movement, it unleashed economic and political dynamics that led to the suppression of capitalism.
The historical experience of capitalist democracy shows that a necessary condition is that the bourgeoisie not consider that its socioeconomic dominance – or any other interest that it might consider vital in the given circumstances – is threatened by the democratic freedoms. There is involved, therefore, a certain subjective element: the perception on the part of the bourgeoisie of the degree of threat to what it considers vital to its dominance. Be that as it may, this condition was absent in Russia of the early twentieth century. The Russian bourgeoisie, and the nobility even more, feared to remain face to face with the toiling classes, the workers and peasants, without the support of the repressive apparatus of the autocratic state.
Russian society was deeply split, polarized between the propertied classes, on the one hand, and the toiling classes, on the other. This polarization, this irreconcilable opposition had deep roots in the history and social structure of Russian society. It was not something that the Bolsheviks created in October 1917. “We are accused of sowing civil war,” said a Bolshevik worker at the conference of worker and Red-army delegates of the First City District of Petrograd in May 1918. “There is here a big mistake, if not a lie… Class interests are not created by us. They are a question that exists in life, a fact, before which all must bow.”
Fear of the people explains the cowardly, fundamentally impotent opposition to the autocracy even among the most radical elements of the propertied classes. The Kadet (Constitutional Democrat – liberal) V.A. Maklakov expressed this graphically in a famous article entitled “A Tragic Situation”, published in 1915. He used a metaphor to explain his point. An automobile is travelling along a mountain road, and the driver is obviously crazy. The threat of a catastrophe is great. There are people sitting in the car (read: liberal political actors) who know how to drive. But their action is paralyzed by the fear that in the course of the struggle to get control of the steering wheel, the car will fall into the abyss. And your mother (Russia, clearly identified with the social dominance of the propertied classes) is seated in the back. This fear paralyses the action of those “who know how to drive.” J. M. Paleologue, French ambassador to Russia during the war, recalled a conversation in June 1915 with the prominent banker and industrialist A.I Putilov. The latter described the coming revolution as “horrifying anarchy, endless anarchy… anarchy for ten years.”
When the workers of Petrograd, supported by the garrison, overthrew the autocracy in February 1917, the propertied classes at first, so it seemed, welcomed the revolution. Their members came out into the streets sporting red ribbons in their lapels. But in their hearts, they were deeply alarmed. V.V. Stankevich, a Popular (rightwing) Socialist, military commissar under the Provisional Government in 1917 and an acute observer of the political scene, recalled of that period: “Officially they were jubilant. They praised the revolution, shouted “hurray” for the fighters for freedom, decorated themselves with ribbons and marched under red banners. They are said “we”, “our” revolution, “our” victory. But in their hearts, in intimate conversation, they were horrified, they shuddered and felt themselves captives of hostile elemental forces that were going along some unforeseeable path.”
A fundamental condition of liberal democracy was thus missing: the propertied classes were too afraid of the popular masses. Did they have anything to fear? The landed aristocracy without question did. The peasants’ conception of land reform – and peasants constituted the overwhelming majority of the population – would put an end to their existence, not only as a dominant class, but as a class per se. But neither could the bourgeoisie be indifferent to the perspective a land reform as the peasants wanted it – without compensation – since it would violate the sacrosanct inviolability of private property, even if the property in question was feudal in origin. Besides, by 1917 a very significant part of landlord land was mortgaged to the banks, a fact that brought the two propertied classes even closer together.
But the workers, including the most radical ones, members of the Bolshevik party, were not aiming at the overthrow capitalism in February 1917. That revolution was supposed to be liberal-democratic. Its popular goals were: a democratic republic; an energetic diplomacy aimed at rapidly concluding a democratic, just peace; the eight-hour workday; and land reform. The last two goals were without doubt social. And they were not the only ones. As one of the Petrograd Soviet`s agitators ex- plained in March 1917: “The workers can’t obtain freedom and not use it to ease their burden of labor, to fight capital.” Besides the introduction of the eight-hour workday, in the days after the February Revolution, the workers purged the factory administrations of their most odious members (under the Tsar, the factory administration had collaborated intimately with the civil and political police and was notoriously despotic); they sought increases to their wages (which had been seriously eroded by wartime inflation); they sought the right to elect representatives to permanent factory commit- tees that would represent them in dealings with the administration (the owners had stubbornly resisted permanent collective representation of the workers in their factories), and they obtained the right of their elected factory committees to “oversee the internal work rules” in the factories. Finally, hiring and dismissal of workers were to be carried out with the consent of the factory committee –this had been another area of unbridled managerial arbitrariness before the revolution.
This was undoubtedly a lot, especially for Russia. But workers were not thinking to threaten capitalism with these measures.
Neither the workers, nor the Bolsheviks put forth the demand for workers’ control (with the partial exception of workers in state-owned enterprises.) And when they did later do that, they were demanding access to information, not participation in management of the factories.
The more enlightened representatives of the bourgeoisie understood that. Speaking to a meeting of the Council of Private Railroads in March 1917, N.V. Nekrasov, Minister of Railways and a leftist among liberals, tried to calm the fears of the assembled:
“There is no need to fear the fact that social elements are now beginning to appear. One should rather strive to direct these social elements in the right direction… A rational combination of the social moment with the political is essential, and in no circumstances to deny the social moment, to fear it… That which we need to achieve is not a social revolution, but the avoidance of social revolution through social reform.”
At first, it seemed that the industrialists were prepared to heed this advice. But, in fact, they considered the concessions they had made in the wake of the revolution to be only temporary, until the workers revolutionary ardor cooled and the concessions could be taken back. Only a few weeks after the revolution, the bourgeois (non-socialist) press began to write of the workers’ “excessive demands” that were threatening supplies to the valiant soldiers in the trenches. Workers immediately saw in this an attempt to drive a wedge between them and soldiers – it was the worker-solider alliance that had made possible the February Revolution. They began to suspect that, behind increasingly frequent production problems, a hidden, creeping lockout was being put into effect. Before the revolution, lockouts had been a favorite weapon of the industrialists against the workers’ movement. The general lockout in St. Petersburg in November and December 1905 had dealt a decisive blow to Russia’s first revolution.
The workers’ suspicions only grew stronger when they saw the Provisional Government refuse to adopt any serious measures to combat the growing economic dislocation caused by the war and Tsarist incompetence. The Minister of Trade and Industry, A.I. Konovalov, himself an industrialist, resigned in protest against a rather modest plan for state economic regulation that had been drafted by the Economic Commission of the Petrograd Soviet, con- trolled at the time by the moderate socialists, the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). These parties strongly advocated the political alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie. A few weeks later, in a speech to a Congress of the War-Industry Committees, Konovalov complained about of the workers’ “excessive demands” and warned that “if in the nearest future a sobering of minds does not occur, we will wit- ness the closure of tens and hundreds of enterprises.” And Konovalov was known as a “leftist” among industrialists.
And so already from the late spring of 1917, workers were becoming increasingly convinced that the bourgeoisie was conducting a hidden lockout, hoping to suppress the workers’ movement with “the bony hand of hunger”, as the liberal banker and industrial magnate P.P. Ryabushinskii so graphically put it at the Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Industry Congress in early August 1917. Against the threat of advancing economic collapse and mass unemployment, the workers tried to introduce control of the administration, in the sense of access to information in order to verify the causes cited by management for production problems. But they soon realized that such control would evade them unless the bourgeoisie was removed from influence in the government. And so it was no accident that the first citywide assembly of workers’ representatives in the capital to vote for the transfer of power to the soviets was the Conference of Factory Committees that met at the beginning of June.
The transfer of power to the soviets meant for the workers the removal of the proper- tied classes from influence over state policy. Workers were increasingly convinced that the propertied classes were bent on counterrevolution. The Provisional Government, a coalition of representatives of those classes with the moderate socialists, during the eight months of its existence failed to carry out a single one of the objectives that popular classes had sought in the February Revolution: not land reform, not a peace policy, not convocation of a constituent assembly; not the adoption of a law on the eight-hour workday. (The latter was introduced by the workers in the capital on their own. But a law was never adopted.) Instead, the Provisional Government, pressed by the Allies, launched a new offensive at the front in June. It rejected state economic regulation and fought against workers’ control. And it abetted and facilitated a generals’ conspiracy at the end of August 1917 aimed at suppressing popular organizations, the soviets first of all.
Russia’s workers fully supported the October insurrection and the transfer of power to the soviets. In the removal of the propertied classes from any influence on government policy they saw the only possibility of avoiding a counterrevolution and realizing the promise of the February Revolution. They did not expect miracles from the transfer of power to the soviets. They saw that industrial collapse and hunger were approaching. And the Bolsheviks, on their part, did not promise miracles.
In the Russian capital, the workers, and first of all worker Bolsheviks, who numbered more than 30,000 in October 1917 – understood that they would have ranged against them not only have the propertied classes, but also most of the intelligentsia, the educated elements of society, including the socialist intelligentsia. The latter, with significant but too few exceptions, turned its back on the people at the very moment it dared to straighten its bent back and stand at full height. But the transfer of power to the soviets offered at least a chance to save the revolution. And there was also the hope that Russia’s example would inspire revolutions in Western countries, and that the latter would come to the aid of Russia’s revolution.
The Bolsheviks are often condemned for organizing the October insurrection and for unleashing civil war, when, in fact, they deserve praise for their action in October. As a workers’ party, they honestly carried out their duty – they did not abandon the people at the most critical moment, leaving it without leadership. In contrast, the left Mensheviks, who shared basically the Bolsheviks’ view of the counterrevolutionary aspirations of the propertied classes, decided to stand aside, since they did not believe that a government based solely on the soviets, that is, on the workers and peasants, and without participation of the middle strata of society, would be viable. But these middle strata in 1917, and most importantly their educated element, the intelligentsia, had chosen the side of bourgeoisie, or else they vainly tried to stand above the fray. As for the right-wing Mensheviks and SRs, they continued to insist on including in power, in one form or another, representatives of the bourgeoisie – after all, they argued, it was a bourgeois-democratic revolution, the only one possible in backward Russia – closing their eyes to the counterrevolutionary aspirations of the propertied classes.
Those who consider the Bolsheviks a group of ideologues and usurpers have trouble explaining how such a group, without any experience in state or economic administration, without the support of the bulk of the educated part of society, without an army (at least in the first several months), was able to hold onto power against the propertied classes not only of Russia, but of all the more developed capitalist countries, and even some undeveloped ones.
In fact, the Bolshevik party of 1917 was flesh of the flesh of the working class. That was the secret of its success. It was very far from the later image of a “Leninist party,” portrayed as an authoritarian, strictly hierarchical organization of professional revolutionaries. If the party had been such in October 1917, there never would have been a second revolution. Only the pressure of the party’s lower and middle strata forced the reluctant Central-Committee majority to act in October. The Central Committee went so far as to burn Lenin’s letters demanding preparation of the insurrection!
Three fourths of the Bolshevik party membership in Russia’s capital (40,000 members in October 1917) were workers. The members of the district and city committees were overwhelmingly workers. These worker Bolsheviks were the most active, politically aware and determined part of the working class. They were that part of the working class that dared to take on the leadership of the revolution, knowing that the chances of victory were not great. They had above all a strongly developed sense of dignity – human and class dignity – and they were determined not to yield without giving battle.
It was to these Bolsheviks that Lenin appealed in October against the majority of the party’s Central Committee. The latter preferred to await the constituent assembly (elections to which were finally organized by the Soviet government in November), as if that assembly could magically cure the profound split in Russian society. The Kornilov uprising at the end of August 1917, sympathy for which the Kadet party, which was hegemonic among the propertied classes in 1917, did not conceal, demonstrated clearly the kind of regime that latter desired.
One often encounters the claim in the historiography that the roots of Stalinist totalitarianism were already present in the “Leninist” conception of the party. But the party in 1917 was an open, democratic organization. The capital’s Bolsheviks more than once rejected positions adopted by the Central Committee and supported by Lenin.
As for the totalitarian tendencies ascribed to the party, one need only recall the unanimous support among Petrograd’s Bolsheviks on the morrow of the October insurrection for the formation of a broad coalition of all the socialist parties, from the Bolsheviks on the left to the Popular Socialists on the right. How does this t with the claim that the Bolsheviks aspired to a one-party dictatorship? If that coalition was not formed, it was because the moderate socialists rejected the principle of a government responsible to the soviets, representative organizations of the workers and peasants, to the exclusion representation of the propertied classes. They insisted on including, in one form or another, representatives of the latter and on limiting the Bolsheviks to a minority status in the government, even though the Bolsheviks had constituted the majority at the recent Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies. The Mensheviks and SRs were demanding, in effect, to annul the October insurrection and to restore the status quo ante, which had been the reason for the insurrection. When the workers saw that to be the case, they lost interest in the proposed coalition.
But when subsequently the Left SRs decided to participate in the Soviet government and the Peasant Congress decided to merge with the Central Executive Committee of worker and soldier deputies, there was jubilation among workers, including the Bolshevik workers, who were very conscious of the danger of their political isolation and of the tremendous difficulties that confronted the Soviet government. Despite this, the Mensheviks and the SRs, from the very first days of the Soviet government, referred to it only as “the Bolshevik dictatorship”.
In actual fact, the Bolshevik organization in the capital almost disappeared in the year following the October insurrection. The politically active workers – and most of these were organized in the Bolshevik party – felt that, now that the people had taken power in its hands, the task was to work in the soviets, in the economic administrations, to organize the Red Army. This is how Konstantin Shelavin, a member of Petrograd’s Bolshevik Committee, recalled that period:
A series of responsible, highly qualified comrades who had gone through the school of illegality be- came infected with an exclusively “soviet” spirit, not to speak of the masses of the younger generation. Even if these comrades did not give full expression to what they were thinking, all of them, nevertheless, had a certain difficulty imagining what, in essence, was left for the party organizations to do after the victory of the proletariat. Some thought that there at least remained agitation and propaganda activities. But they still felt that the real activity now is, for example, to organize the district soviet of the national economy, and certainly not to “ferment” in the district party committee. Indeed, around them everything was churning; the old was being destroyed and the new was being built; sabotage was being fought; the first new soviet state forces were being recruited; the districts were being organized like independent republics with their own commissars – of labor, of education, etc.; the best party forces were being thrown into this whirlwind of construction… When the Vasileostrovskii district soviet moved into a new building on Srednii Prospekt from the 16th Line, they relegated the district party committee to the fifth floor, and their thinking went something along the lines: what sort of particular work can they possibly have now?
This was clearly not the behavior of a party bent on establishing its totalitarian power.
It is always tempting to read history back- wards, in this case from Stalin’s totalitarian regime to the October insurrection, or perhaps even farther – to Lenin’s brochure What Is to Be Done?  Stalinism did not arise, of course, out of nowhere, but out of the social and political conditions that preceded it. But if the Communist party eventually replaced the soviets already during the civil war as the real center of power, the explanation should be sought in the social and political conditions of that period, and not in some kind of ideological DNA of the Bolshevik party.
Victor Serge, a Belgian anarchist who arrived in Petrograd in 1919 and quickly became a supporter of the Soviet government (after the civil war, in the 1920s, he was active in the left opposition to rising Stalinism), wrote the following in 1920 in a letter to his anarchist comrades back home:

“The suppression of so-called freedoms; dictatorship backed up if necessary by terror; the creation of an army; centralization for war purposes of industry, food supplies and administration (whence state control and bureaucracy); and finally, the dictator- ship of a party. In this fearsome chain of necessities, there is not a single link that is not rigorously conditioned by the one that precedes it and which does not in turn condition the one that follows it. “

Serge recognized that such a state, however justified by the goal of saving the revolution, could generate powerful vested interests that would want to maintain it even after the threat of counterrevolution had passed. His response was a call for vigilance, and he expressed the hope that the revolutionary struggle in more developed countries would not be as difficult and as drawn out as in Russia, a country already devastated by the world war, especially if the following revolutions could rely on the support of an already established revolutionary state in Russia. At the same time, he recognized that in the eventual struggle against the power of the bureaucracy in Russia, “the Communists may need to resort to profoundly revolutionary activity which will be long and difficult.”
Serge’s words and surprising echo in those of a Bolshevik worker at a conference of factory committees in Petrograd in January 1918. The industrial situation was already approaching catastrophic, particularly the shortages of fuel and raw materials. The delegates to the conference were unanimous about the need to centralize economic authority so that the scarce re- sources and the industrial orders could be allocated in a rational manner according to the most urgent needs of the young Soviet state. The Economic Soviet of the Northern Commune had only just been created, and the conference was to consider proposed regulations, according to which orders emanating from that body would be binding on the factory committees. In the course of the discussion, an anarchist delegate pro- posed an amendment: the orders would be binding, “except in cases where the order contradicts the interests of the working class.” To this, the chairperson of the presidium, a Bolshevik worker, answered:

At the time, when we were examining these regulations, we saw the corresponding point and we wanted to insert exactly that reservation. We thought about it. But we didn’t insert it into the charter, thinking that the sovnarkhoz [economic council] that we are organizing will not move against us, because it is not a bureaucratically created organ, not appointed from above, but an organ that we ourselves have chosen, that we can recall, and it consists of people that we can re- move from their activity… Don’t forget that the sovnarkhoz is a class body, based on the class of the proletariat and the poorest peasants, and it seems to us that it is hardly necessary, by inserting such a reservation, to express that kind of lack of confidence in them. If we adopt an attitude of mistrust from the very beginning, then these organs will hardly be able to function correctly… And I think that only an anarchist could propose such an amendment, as they reject any sort of leaders and have absolutely no confidence in them… [But] if these organs really do thus part ways with the masses, then, of course, we will have to intro- duce such an amendment. And that will not be enough – we will have to overthrow those organs and perhaps make a new revolution. But it seems to us that, for now, the Soviet of People’s Commissars is our soviet, and the institutions that it has established are functioning harmoniously together.

What Serge and these workers feared might eventually happen did happen. But when the time came to make a new revolution, the working class, which had already led three revolutions, could not find the strength for a fourth. The decisive factor in the authoritarian development of the Soviet regime was, without doubt, the dispersal of the working class after the October Revolution, something that occurred surprisingly quickly in the very first months after the insurrection. For a quarter century prior to that, the urban working class had been the vanguard of the struggle for democracy in Russia. Not long after October, it practically ceased to exist as an independent political force. The Communist party claimed to represent the working class. And, and least in the first years, it did have in its ranks the best forces of that class. But the party could not substitute itself for the social class as an active socio-political force, one capable of exercising effective control over the state it had brought into existence.