Arkady Rylov, Vladimir Lenin in Razliv, 1934. Oil on canvas. Collection of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Why the Bolsheviks Won
November 3, 2017
The question of why the Bolsheviks won in October 1917 was meaningful to the revolution’s contemporaries and has lost none of its relevance today. Over the past one hundred years, numerous mutually contradictory causes have been identified: from the fanaticism of a cohesive band of conspirators to searching for Bolshevism’s roots in the popular consciousness, from conspiracy theories to official Soviet historiography’s stance on the October Revolution’s objective preconditions.
After the February uprising, the most influential leftist parties were the SRs and Mensheviks, who led the Petrograd Soviet and the majority of provincial Soviets. They formed a moderatel socialist bloc that advocated a long-term transition from capitalism to socialism. The SRs and Mensheviks stood for social partnership between the classes and supported the Provisional Government while also striving to control its actions in order to consolidate the February Revolution’s gains. They agreed on the notion of “revolutionary defencism,” i.e., continuing Russia’s involvement in the First World War while rejecting expansionist goals.
The Bolshevik Party was not a significant force as of February 1917. In the preceding years, the left wing of Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had been weakened by the denunciations, arrests, transportation, and exile of its most influential leaders. Many rank-and-file party members had retired from the cause due to persecution by the authorities. Even after the events of February, there were no more than 25,000 Bolsheviks in Russia.
The Bolsheviks had stood out from the broad spectrum of political parties from the get-go. Before February 1917, they had put forward the slogan “Down with the war!” and been heavily involved in the antiwar and defeatist movements. After the overthrow of the monarchy, the Bolshevik leadership argued that the new “bourgeois” government was pursuing its previous goals nor had the nature of the war changed. Disputes among the Bolsheviks touched on the question of power. The party’s Petrograd organization was inclined to refuse supporting the Provisional Government. However, after the return from transportation of the influential Joseph Djugashvili (Stalin), Mikhail Muranov, and Lev Rozenfeld (Kamenev), the party was more inclined to supported the new regime’s decisions if they met the interests of working people. Bolshevik leaders were ready to reject factional differences and unite all currents of social democracy.
Circumstances changed when Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) returned from a long period of exile. He proposed an unexpected program to his comrades: breaking with the moderate socialists supporting the Provisional Government, ending the war, and overthrowing the regimes in all the warring countries. Lenin was certain the so-called bourgeois-democratic phase of the revolution was over, and it was time to proceed to the socialist stage. The emergence of the Soviets, which ensured the presence of workers and peasants in the government, facilitated the possibility of a rapid transition to socialism. During April 1917, Lenin persuaded the party to adopt the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” and accept the bulk of his so-called April Theses.
However, it was not the radical program that made Lenin’s name really famous, but the hype caused by his return to Russia via Germany, which was still at war with Russia. The party’s leader was accused of aiding the enemy and declared a German spy. The claims heightened the tension in society. Bolshevik campaigners were often arrested and beaten. This discredited any criticism of the Provisional Governmment. The moderate socialists in charge of the Petrograd Soviet rose to the defense of Lenin’s views until they went beyond campaigning.
By June 1917, the Bolsheviks numbered around 240,000 people in their ranks. By way of comparison, by the summer of 1917, the SRs had 800,000 people in their ranks, although the vast majority of them were so-called March SRs, i.e., people who had joined the party after the February Revolution. Membership of the Socialist Revolutionary Party did not require paying dues and being involved in party work, so it makes no sense to speak of a unity of action and purpose among its members. The SRs had become the “party of power,” so many of its new members were guided by career ambitions when they joined.
Circumstances had shaped up differently for the Bolsheviks. In early 1917, the party had found itself in a minority in most Soviets. Its members argued with the more influential moderate socialists and often risked life and limb by speaking at rallies. In addition, according to their charter, a person could join the party only on the recommendation of two members. This consolidated the Bolsheviks and brought the stances of its different factions closer together.
Time was on the side of Lenin and his party. A series of political crises and the government’s refusal to implement serious reforms before the Constituent Assembly was convened had weakened the coalition of socialists and liberals. The failure of a July offensive on the front, spearheaded by the socialist war minister Alexander Kerensky, strengthened antiwar moods in the army. The Bolsheviks called for the re-election of deputies who did not defend the interests of voters. By the summer of 1917, large left-wing Social Democratic factions had taken shape in many Russian cities. However, during this period, the Bolsheviks were unable to gain a majority over the moderate socialists in most Soviets.
On July 3, 1917, a spontaneous uprising meant to persuade the leadership of the city’s Soviet to take power broke out in Petrograd. Seeing that the uprising was following its slogans and afraid of forfeiting its influence among the masses, the Bolshevik Central Committee decided to join the demonstrators. July 4 was marked in many Russian cities by Bolshevik-led demonstrations chanting the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” The moderate socialists, however, believed Lenin’s supporters were trying to exert armed pressure on the Soviets and supported the Provisional Government’s pacification of the capital. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Pavel Pereverzev published documents denouncing the Bolsheviks’ alleged ties with Germany.
Pereverzev supervised the drafting of a press release based on the testimony of an Ensign Yermolenko and correspondence between Stockholm and Petrograd, intercepted by Russian counterintelligence. The testimony of the defector Yermolenko, who had been recruited by German intelligence, about Lenin’s involvement in espionage aroused doubts even among his contemporaries, and the Provisional Government’s investigators failed to find evidence the Bolsheviks were funded by the German General Staff. The intercepted documents touched on business matters, and the money had been sent from Petrograd to Stockholm. The investigators had no other evidence.
However, the publication considerably altered the mood in Petrograd, and the demonstrations quickly came to naught. The government arrested the instigators, unreliable army divisions were dispatched to the front, and a criminal investigation into Bolshevik Party leaders was launched. Lenin was forced into hiding to avoid arrest. This was the most difficult period for the party. However, it purged its ranks of waverers, leaving behind only firm supporters of radical action.
The events of October 1917 in Petrograd have often been called a coup. There is some truth in this. The seizure of certain facilities in the city and the blockade of the Provisional Government on Palace Square were effected by military means. But a coup would not have led to a change of regimes without the Military Revolutionary Committee (VRK), established by the authoritative Petrograd Soviet. By October, it was dominated by a block of leftist radical parties led by the Bolsheviks. All the parties delegated commissars to the committee for overseeing military units and key facilities in the city. If the Bolsheviks had attempted to remove the Provisional Government from power only by military means, events would probably have dragged on and could have ended with the defeat of the radicals.
The victory of the left-wing radical parties depended not only on events in the capital: the revolution was a large-scale, nationwide process. There were numerous “October Revolutions.” Moreover, in some places, e.g., Tashkent, Revel (Tallinn), and Kazan, the Soviets had taken power earlier than in Petrograd, while in other places they took power considerably later. Soviet power’s “triumphal march” dragged on for over a year. Circumstances depended on the balance of political forces in the regions. In the Volga River Basin, for example, the Left SRs and SR Maximalists played the main role in establishing Soviet power. In Krasnoyarsk and Kronstadt, it was anarchists who ensured the radical left bloc’s victory.
At the front in the summer of 1917, extreme left-wing forces tried to put up a fight against the moderate socialists in the army’s Soviets. They were most successful at the Northern Front, situated closest to the capital, where a left bloc uniting Bolsheviks, Menshevik Internationalists, and Left SRs from twenty-eight regiments, including Latvian riflemen, was established. At other fronts, the SRs and Mensheviks dominated the leadership of Soldiers’ Soviets at the highest level until October. The Bolsheviks succeeded in winning after the military revolutionary committees were established.
So, it would be inaccurate to say the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917. The transition to full-fledged Soviet power occurred because the moderate socialist bloc had discredited itself by governing in coalition with the liberals. Regime change was ensured by uniting the left-wing radical parties under the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the Soviets!” In this wise, the numbers of Bolsheviks did not play a big role, and the fight with moderate socialists in the Soviets continued for several months. However, Russia was already sliding toward civil war: the chance for compromise had been frittered away. The time for uncompromising struggle had come.
Konstantin Tarasov is a researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Translated by the Russian Reader