Payn, “The 1917 Russian Revolution and United Front” (2014)

The 1917 Russian Revolution and United Front

Jonathan Payn

First published in issue 88 of Workers World News

Part 3 in a series of articles on the concept and history of the United Front.

In the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik Party, together with other revolutionaries, overthrew the Provisional Government established in February and – together, initially, with left Social Revolutionaries – seized power. How did the Bolsheviks – a minority just eight months earlier, when the February Revolution overthrew the Tsar and established the Provisional Government – come to power so quickly? How did this small force emerge from relative obscurity to win large sections of the working class to its programme and take power? Herein lies the root and essence of United Front policy in a traditional Marxist sense.

Soviet Democracy and Revolution in February
During the February Revolution, workers, peasants and soldiers spontaneously rose up and seized land and factories throughout Russia establishing workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils – mass democratic organs of working class counter-power. These councils, known as soviets, elected their own delegates and had representatives from different political tendencies from (reformist) Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to (revolutionary) anarchists and Bolsheviks. Through the soviets workers co-ordinated strikes and other forms of struggle, using them to govern themselves as a class. They were, in effect, united fronts organised from below by the working masses in pursuit of specific demands: food, land, democratic reforms and an end to the war.

In a few short weeks the Tsar, whose family had ruled Russia for generations,

was forced to abdicate and a provisional government formed. The soviets developed alongside the liberal Provisional Government and a situation of dual-power emerged. Initially, the soviets supported the Provisional Government as a hesitant expression of workers’ democratic aspirations but, as the war dragged on and the Provisional Government failed to implement even modest social reforms, discontent arose. Many workers and soldiers trusted the soviets more than the Provisional Government; but the new government was not strong enough to disband them.

Discontent and Reaction in August
The Provisional Government, headed by Kerensky, faced a crisis by the end of July. The growth of revolutionary ideas was fuelled by worsening economic conditions, unpopular government policies and peasant unrest.

The ruling class became unhappy with Kerensky’s weak-kneed government. In August, the reactionary General Kornilov broke with the Provisional Government and plotted to establish himself at Russia’s head by seizing Petrograd – the stronghold of the revolution. If the Kerensky government could not deal with the soviets he would do so himself.

Barricades and revolutionary defence committees were established by workers and soldiers spontaneously across Petrograd to defend their hard-won democratic advances from General Kornilov’s forces. The Bolsheviks, like most other revolutionary currents, entered into these committees as a minority but played a prominent role in the Committee of Revolutionary Defence. They established Red Guard units and provided military training.

Bolshevik “Upswing” and Revolution in October
The coup, which was rightly seen as a reactionary attempt to crush the soviets, was defeated. The workers’ victory shifted the balance of forces leftwards and Bolshevik support surged. Later, this “upswing” in Bolshevik support was attributed to their united front-style tactics.

According to this analysis, by participating in the front-lines of the struggle against Kornilov while maintaining their political independence, providing political leadership and not taking responsibility for the inadequacies of Kerensky’s policies, the Bolsheviks won the majority over to their leadership. Faced with a common enemy different workers’ parties were united in action and, both by supporting the (non-Communist) mass of workers’ demands for land, peace and bread and by exposing their reformist leaders’ inability to satisfy these demands, the Bolsheviks managed to win the majority to their programme.

Within two months, the Bolsheviks had led a revolution against the Provisional Government and established what appeared for a short while to be soviet power. This, for traditional Marxists, was the “great lesson” of the Russian Revolution.

Another Approach: Revolutionary and from Below
However, many leftists – including some prominent Bolsheviks – were critical of the Bolshevik approach to the struggle against Kerensky. The reformists believed that instead of dissolving the Constituent Assembly they should have formed a socialist united front government with other socialist parties – the Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks – which together had a majority, as the Constituent Assembly elections in November showed.

For them such a government, enjoying majority support, would bring peace and through the economic stability enabled by these conditions could gradually introduce socialist reforms from above. They said a Bolshevik-only government would lead to “a regime of terror and to the destruction of the revolution”.

However, there was another revolutionary position – represented by the anarchists, syndicalists and communist left. This position held that the working class was already united in revolutionary action in February 1917. They argued that the soviets were already a majority and didn’t need the support of the Provisional Government or Bolshevik leadership but, rather, could have built on the class confidence gained through Kornilov’s defeat to dissolve the Provisional Government and truly disseminate all power to the soviets.

This position held that what was needed to advance the revolution was not centralised state power under the leadership of an all-powerful party, but the decentralised power of a federation of armed workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets; a revolutionary united front from below.

The Bolshevik argument was that you couldn’t have a revolution without Communist Party leadership because the working class would vacillate in its absence. However, there were in fact many episodes throughout 1917 where the working class was more revolutionary than the parties, Communist included. Many parties thus tailed the working class and even the Bolsheviks changed their programme to be more in line with the revolutionary working class – only to change it back once they had consolidated power.

While we will never know what would have happened had this alternative position triumphed, history has vindicated the argument against one-party Communist rule.

The next instalment in this series will look at another important episode in united working class struggle and its contribution to United Front policy – Germany in 1920-21.

 

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).