Only around three-hundred men stormed the Winter Palace in 1917. The process was slow, with red guards climbing onto ledges and struggling to break windows to gain entrance to the seat of the Provisional Government. But it was with this occupation that the world was forever changed.
To track the beginning of the Russian Revolution is a near impossible task. Some may start with the 1905 revolution, afterwhich the Tzar established the Duma, the first elected representative body in Russia’s history on the national level. Perhaps it is better to track the event to the assassination of Tzar Alexander the II by the group “People’s Will.” Or, one could start with the Decembrist Revolt of the 1820s, in which several imperial army officers attempted to form a constitutional government in Russia, but eventually failed in the wake of autocratic repression. Perhaps with the westernizing reforms of Peter the Great. One may even trace the event to the very moment in which Muscovy freed itself of Mongol rule.
Looking outside Russia, one could follow the thread of revolution to the the first leftist government to be formed: the Paris Commune of 1871, which was eventually crushed by the forces of Napoleon III. Regardless of the starting point, the lessons of the Russian Revolution hold much importance for today’s Left.
In the Face of Trade Unionism and Workers' Committees
During the February and October Revolutions, two types of workers' organizations were present: the trade unions and the workers committees. The trade unions, often supported by Menshevik parties, sought workplace reforms coming from management. The one weapon of the trade unions was strike, but once a negotiation was settled, a symbiosis formed between management and union leadership. Both depended on each other for survival. The workers' committees, often supported by the Bolsheviks or run by Bolsheviks, shared power with management, reserving the right to hire and fire people, fix wages, and improve working conditions. The workers' committees also sponsored cultural, educational, and recreational events for the employees of several workplaces. In the face of an anemic union movement in the U.S., labor in this country should embrace workers' committees as a new way of gaining power in the workplace and agitating for the end of capitalism.
After the February revolution, two government structures formed: the Provisional Government, run primarily by liberals and the capitalist class, and the Petrograd Soviet. The Soviet included workers and soldiers and thus held true power over the city, while the Provisional Government could only hope to maintain authority until the calling of the Constituent Assembly. Eventually, Lenin’s slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” was fulfilled after the storming of the Winter Palace and the dissolution of the Provisional Government. The U.S., in contrast, has seen very few instances of dual power, although the Left would benefit from the erection of parallel structures that defy the municipal government, run mainly by those of the capitalist class who advocate for the gentrification of our cities and the militarization of our police forces. We must begin to look at the government as an institution that serves as a bank for people’s social trust and social activity. In the creation of alternative “banks,” the Left will win something greater than a $15 minimum wage or rent-controlled housing: it will win the trust of the working people.
Rejection of Electoralism
The Russian Revolution stands in stark contrast to the trend of social democracy in Western and Central Europe, which advocated for the election of socialist candidates to pass legislative reforms to the capitalist system. Lenin and the Bolsheviks utterly rejected this trend. Instead of atomizing the people's power in the form of votes and separating capitalism into a hodgepodge of various social issues, the Bolsheviks organized for a true dictatorship of the proletariat. While this eventually failed, turning into a dictatorship of the party itself, this aspiration should always be kept in mind. For the U.S. Left, we must remember that while candidates like Bernie Sanders helped our cause by making the word socialism acceptable in the political landscape, they are not the solution. The solution must always be direct democracy, built off of the principles of voluntarism and mutual cooperation.
Many will claim that the centenary of the Russian Revolution should be rendered just another date on the calendar, as the state that was formed led to a repressive dictatorship and eventually ended in 1991. But I claim otherwise. Let this centenary serve as one more moment to ask the question that Lenin so famously asked: “What is to be done?” In a world in which capitalism is becoming less organized and more based off of debt exploitation, and accelerating greater and greater inequality, let the events of 1917 serve to inspire the Left with the hope that the world can rise on new foundations and that those who were nothing shall be all.