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The Failure and Success of The Russian Revolution

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The Virtue of Inevitable Defeats

Before the Russian Revolution, there was not a single successful proletarian revolution. Many prior attempts — such as the German Revolution of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Finnish Revolution of 1917 — all ended in failure. However, the majority of bourgeois revolutions succeed and this is a very interesting paradox. The very idea that proletarian revolutions inherently fail but bourgeois revolutions, taking into account that the vast majority of violent revolutions fail and counting only those that succeed, statistically do much better. The principle of each type of insurgence is the same: the masses fight against an established power. This raises the question of what the difference is between these two types of revolution and why it matters. The large gap in success rates means that the difference must dramatically affect each time of uprising. The second part of this question asks for the reverse statement: if proletarian revolutions are known to do so badly, what was different enough about the Russian Revolution — and the Russian Civil War that followed it — which allowed the Bolshevik Party to gain power and, surprisingly, keep it.

Proletarian revolutions are characterized by the working class striving to restructure the government while bourgeois revolutions typically involve overthrowing a dictator or the sole leader of a country to establish a democracy. Often, bourgeois revolutions are known as democratic-bourgeois revolutions for this very reason. It’s important to note that bourgeois revolutions do not have to have been orchestrated by the bourgeoisie to be categorized this way, however. In many cases, a revolution will start off bourgeois — and succeed in creating a democratic society — and the working class will realize that they are still not being benefitted enough and attempt to gain power, only to be cut down the middle and upper classes. Often, such as in the Russian Revolution, this means taking a capitalist country and turning it Communist. Not all Communist countries are created through a proletarian revolution and not all proletarian revolutions end in Communism but there is certainly a direct correlation. The very idea of a proletarian revolution comes from the middle class, who originally supported the working class, deciding to take up arms against them. Just as the middle class joined the workers to exploit their large numbers to overthrow the usually dictatorial government in the case of a bourgeois revolution, the counter-revolutions exploit the bourgeois by fighting for an anti-worker democracy (Serge).

The reason that bourgeois revolutions tend to succeed is because they are not social revolutions in the same way that proletariat-led uprisings are. The difference between political revolutions, which are the more common type and what a bourgeois revolution can best be described as, and social revolutions is that the latter involves changing the fundamental structure of the government (Davidson). The reason why this distinction matters is due to the fact that such a large change scares people. Most leaders of proletariat revolutions don’t know what exactly they are hoping to create and therefore aren’t sure how to create a society that will allow them to find this uncertain goal. The other major problem comes from the government of other countries who are unwilling to let Communism sweep the world. This can be seen during the Cold War, as the United States promises to protect any country that is fighting against the spread of Bolshevism. This means that the working class doesn’t just have to defeat their country’s upper and middle classes but also those of any other country who wish to get involved. This is a huge reason why the Finnish Revolution of 1917 failed, as you’ll see. The Russian Revolution occurred during World War I which might seem like it would be helpful as most of the world powers were busy fighting amongst themselves but it actually ended up hurting the Bolsheviks. As the Germans were invading Finland at this time to fight Communism, the Allied forces were informed by their ambassadors in Russia that the Bolsheviks were helping the Triple Entente and that if they were to win the First World War, they would have to crush the Russian forces as well (Serge). This led to the working class of Russia being forced to fight against every powerful country in the world, as well as their own noblemen.

There are many examples of failed proletariat revolutions: anarchist revolts during the 1868 – 1873 Spanish Revolution, the Russian narodniks movement of the 1860s, the Chicago anarchists of 1886, and a Polish social revolutionary party called, quite appropriately, “Proletariat” (Insarov). One parallel between these failed revolutions and the success of the Bolsheviks can be seen with the Finnish Revolution of 1917, which was occurring at the same time as the Russian one — the notable difference being that the former revolution failed. This comparison shows exactly how the Russian Revolution had to be different from other failed uprisings in order to succeed. In December of 1917, the Social Democrats of the Finnish Parliament declared their nation to be independent from the Russian Provisional Government and each country would therefore begin its journey to a proletarian revolution separately. The middle class supported this separation, fearing that the Russian Bolsheviks would infect their country if they remained together. In response, the Finnish Red Guard, which served as the working class, seized the capital of Helsinki in late January of 1918 and the proletarian revolution was formally declared (Tepora).

The Finns didn’t have as much going for them as the Russians did, however. Their leaders weren’t as strong as Lenin or Trotsky and they didn’t have a clear idea of what would constitute a success, which is the most important quality of a proletariat revolution. They had no real goal besides creating a democratic parliament that would be lead by the working class. How they would accomplish this was still unknown (Serge). It’s important to note that they were trying to create a democracy — although it was worker-led which would lead to it being more proletarian than bourgeois — which is not true Communism like the Russians were trying to accomplish. Since the Russians had a very clear idea that they wished to create a socialist government, they knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish and how they would get there. The Finnish may have had more success if they also followed this strategy. The other main issue that the Finns faced was that the German soldiers, fighting to stop the spread of Bolshevik ideals, were supporting the middle class. Once their country became just another theater of the First World War, the Finnish proletariat were doomed. They were declared a republic independent from Russia in 1919 and the Germans claimed that they had ‘saved’ the working class from the disease of Communism. In reality, a huge chunk of the population lost their civic rights when they were let out of POW camps (Tepora).

The Russian Revolution started off just like any other bourgeois revolution did. It was not always a proletarian uprising and, indeed, only gained the objective of a society run by the working class after the Tzar was taken out of power. The Russian citizens were upset with Tzar Nicholas II because he was too busy on the frontlines, fighting World War I, to listen to their complaints — and they had a lot, especially in regards to the lack of food. By 1900, seventy percent of farmers owned land that was too small to support their families. While the pre-war Russian Empire was one of the five Great Powers of Europe, it was the only one that was a net importer of capital rather than an exporter (Serge). This left Russia to be virtually a colonized nation and, as with many other bourgeois revolutions, lack of food was the main concern of the working class. They just wanted someone to keep them from starving to death. Unfortunately for the Royal family, they refused to listen to these demands. The Tsar’s wife, Alexandra, sent a letter to her husband on the Eastern front telling him that, “this is a hooligan campaign, with boys and girls running about shouting that they have no bread… all this will surely pass” (Baggins). It would not be until after the Romanovs were taken out of power in favor of a democratic leadership, and the bourgeois revolution successfully completed, that the transition to a people’s uprising would begin. With this underway, the Bolsheviks demanded a restructuring of the government, as the democratically elected Duma, which had been created in place of the royal family, was not working out as they hoped it would. As one of the Bolshevik leaders, Bukharin, would declare, “Is what you want a miserable little bourgeois parliamentary republic? In the name of the great Soviet republic of labour, we declare war to the death on such a government! Let the ruling classes and their servants tremble before the Communist revolution. The workers have nothing to lose but their chains” (Serge).

A large part of their success came from their leadership and the result of this proletarian revolution would have been extremely different if Lenin and Trotsky had not been at the helm. Even they worried that the revolution would be over if they were killed on the frontlines. Lenin once asked Trotsky in confidence, “Tell me, if the Whites kill you and me do you think Bukharin and Sverdlov will be able to pull through all right?” (Serge). It was extremely important for their cause that the counter-revolution was unable to find anyone to serve this purpose on the side of the bourgeois. Another huge factor was location. The Bolsheviks controlled the central area of Russia following the October Revolution, which stretched from Petrograd to Moscow. This was not the majority of the county by any means but it was the most crucial part — this was where the majority of the Russian citizens were (especially since they controlled those two cities) and was also, almost as important, the location of the majority of the railroads. They were also lucky as they had the majority in their parliamentary system — the Constituent Assembly — and were able to control other parties and political opponents in this way. One example is the Social Revolutionaries or SRs who also believed in a commoner-led revolution but did not support all of Lenin’s actions. The Bolsheviks banned them from meeting (BBC). Generally speaking, however, this revolution would also not have been possible without the “the fullest and unreserved support from the entire mass of the working class” (Riggins) and everyone involved in a leadership role was only too aware of this.

The first proletarian revolution would take place in Russia but it would not be the last. They just needed one revolution to succeed to prove that it could be done. The bourgeoisie did not believe that their Communism could ever succeed and perhaps neither did the working class — and this is why Lenin’s determination was so crucial. As Rosa Luxemburg said in 1919, “But the [proletarian] revolution is the sole form of ‘war’ — and this is also its most vital law — in which the final victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats’! (…) The revolutions have until now brought nothing but defeats, but these inevitable defeats virtually pile guarantee upon guarantee of the future success of the final goal” (Fabienne). This sort of a revolution was bound to happen soon enough. Without leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, and the determination of the Russian people, the first revolution to succeed might not have been this one, even if success was inevitable. Once the Bolsheviks succeeded, they would just open the floodgates to Communism for the rest of the world.

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