'Down with the monarchy'

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In St Petersburg (Petrograd, as briefly known), in the lit-up mansion, the Smolny, formerly, a young ladies’ academy, they were making furious plans. Exactly a century ago from now. It was the middle of the night, late autumn, the cold already coming in off the Baltic. Through corridors with offices designated with hand-tacked signs — the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), the Party Secretariat, Communications — they were running back and forth, exhausted men and women, arguing, making up, formulating plans on the hop.

Outside, in the lit dark of the Venice of the North, city life continued as ever. The theatres and all-night bars were still open, the trams still ran. In one room in the Smolny, the MRC leader Lev Bronstein calmly assessed the situation, weighing the pros and cons of when to give the order. Suddenly, amid the crowd in the room appeared Ulyanov, the party leader. Ordered to stay in hiding, he had nevertheless made his way in, disguised in bandages and a moptop wig. “Go now!” he said. “For god’s sake!”

Within hours, revolutionary militias, numbering in their tens of thousands, surged forth to take control of the government offices, the post office, the telegraph, the ministries, the barracks, five warships commanded by revolutionary sailors came into harbour — and then the Winter Palace, once home of the Tsar, who had abdicated close to a year earlier, was taken by Red forces. The political leader Ulyanov emerged from hiding to be the leader of the new government.

It was November 7 in the West, but the Russian calendar was 13 days behind. The October revolution had begun. What was first taken as a local coup by a devoted faction, would, through extraordinary circumstances, determine not merely the course of the 20th century, but its character. We are all products of it. Had this revolution not occurred, the world would be nothing like what it became, for worse and better.

Ulyanov is of course Lenin; Bronstein, Trotsky; the group, the Bolsheviks. They headed a party, which had until recently been a faction of the larger Russia Social Democratic Party — and a small faction at that (“Bolsheviki”/majority had been taken as a name by a sleight of hand). Led by Lenin, a revolutionary from his late teens onwards, in late 1880s Russia, the Bolsheviks had defined themselves apart from the larger party, who wanted it to be an open organisation with both professional revolutionary members — working inside Tsarist Russia and in exile — and paid-up supporters. Lenin wanted a different type of party: closed, consisting of full-time professional revolutionaries, their effectiveness multiplied by practice.

In 1903, at a conference in London, the factions split, and the Bolsheviks began operating as a separate party. In 1905, revolution had erupted in St Petersburg, with the first “soviets” — workers councils — forming, and high hopes of early success. When that was crushed the party all but fell apart, a faction riven by factions. Its exile ranks filled with scientists and writers, intellectuals and radical humanists. With no prospect of power, they dreamed not merely of workers revolution and socialism (still the focus of the hardworking Bolshevik party inside Russia). but of a revolution in human being. Now, a mere dozen years later, they had command of a slice of the world.

The Bolsheviks’ separate organisation had been vindicated in 1914 when European war broke out — and moderate socialist parties everywhere who had pledged to oppose a war of worker against worker, fell in line with national leaders. The Bolsheviks were one of the few parties who resisted. They advocated a strategy of “defeatism”: that every socialist party should work for the defeat of its own side to create chaos and thus European revolution. By 1917, that seemed plausible; armies were in revolt everywhere. But the Bolsheviks, declining in numbers, couldn’t do much about it. Lenin ricocheted between a fear that socialist revolution would disappear forever, to a belief — after rereading Hegel, the principal influence on Marx — that history moved in such paradoxical ways that world revolution was imminent …

When revolution came again to Russia in February 1917, Tsarism was finally abolished and a fairly liberal democracy established, the Russian Marxist exiles were desperate to get there. They arrived on a “sealed train” travelling through German territory, arranged by shadowy figures, revolutionaries in deep cover, for whom the war had been an opportunity for subversion on a grand scale. Such a manner of arrival was almost their undoing; after a spontaneous workers-soldiers uprising in early July collapsed, the Bolsheviks were accused of being German spies, running on German money, and they were under lethal threat from angry mobs, and the government itself

But within two months, even accusations of German support didn’t matter. The army had hitherto been split between those who wanted immediate peace, and those wanted to fight on. The latter camp had collapsed, as military failure, famine and the prospect of another winter on the front had come on. Bolshevik membership soared towards 200,000. Whole Red militias formed in the military. Trotsky, arriving back from exile in New York, arrested then released, joined the Bolsheviks.

The February government — led by Kerensky — had support of neither the Tsarist “whites”, nor workers and soldiers. The revolution when it happened — as Kerensky tried in vain to summon regiments on phone lines he no longer commanded — was as much about putting someone decisive in charge, as anything. A mass seizure of power, less than mass revolution, far more than coup, for those who demanded “peace, bread and land”.

Within a few days, and some fierce fighting in Moscow and elsewhere, the major Western cities of Russia were under Bolshevik control. The Bolsheviks had power, called fresh elections to the constituent assembly and then dissolved it when its members voted to continue the war (and also when the Bolsheviks failed to triumph electorally). The Bolsheviks formed a provisional government, waiting for revolution to break out in the West, and fighting a brutal civil war against the “white” forces. An early attempt to proceed directly to communism — part military necessity, partly a product of the wild utopian dreaming of the exile years — was replaced by a mixed economy under political direction, a program called “the new economic policy” (essentially the strategy China has been pursuing since 1979). An international bureau of revolution — the Comintern — was established. Its influence would reach into every social struggle of the century. In the West, Communism, and its offshoot Trotskyism, would give heft to innumerable civil rights and social movement struggles.

For better and worse, from the Cold War to Stalinism, to sputnik and the moonshot, the people’s rise in China to Wave Hill, and beyond, the 20th century was the Bolshevik century. Prior to any moral judgement on the regime that started it, it is worth, at this point, taking a step back, and assessing what it meant, and how it shaped the world we have lived in, in ways we still find it difficult to think outside of. Which encounter with history, and History, we shall return to soon.