The Russian revolution remains the high point of working-class history.
In October 1917, the Russian working class led by the Bolshevik party made a revolution, took power, smashed the old state and proceeded to build a new state based on workers’ democracy. This socialist political and social revolution not only showed that working class power was possible, but unleashed an enormous democratic festival of the oppressed — poor peasants, minority nationalities, women. But when and how did the workers’ rule degenerate? Paul Hampton assesses the different accounts in historical studies.
The soviets (councils) were the principal organs of workers’ political self-expression during the Russian revolution. It was the formation of soviets in February 1917 that propelled an uprising against the tsar into a situation of dual power, where the bourgeois provisional government had to compete with embryonic forms of workers’ democratic self-rule.
Some 700 soviets sprang up in spring 1917 embracing around 200,000 deputies by summer. By October there were 1,429 soviets, of which 455 were soviets of peasants’ deputies (Smith 2002).
Other forms of working class democracy also proliferated. By October 1917, 23% of all factories and 69% of all factories employing over 200 workers had factory committees. Nearly two-thirds of the committees and 79% of those in enterprises with over 200 workers had taken an active part in managing their enterprise (Farber 1990).
Throughout Russia there were about two million trade-union members — about 10% of wage-earners of all kinds. By October 1917, trade-union membership was about 390,000 in Petrograd (Smith 1983). In Moscow there were more than 60 functioning unions, organising 474,000 workers. By October the main unions, such as the metal workers and textile workers, were Bolshevik led. But a significant number were still controlled by Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (Aves 1989).
The Bolshevik party led the seizure of power in October 1917. In 1905 there were only 8,400 Bolsheviks. The estimated membership at the beginning of 1917 was 23,600. With the downfall of the Tsarist regime the Bolsheviks, like the other opposition parties, grew rapidly; their numbers may have exceeded 400,000 by the time they took power (Rigby 1971).
At a conference of factory committees on 7-12 August, a Bolshevik resolution was passed by 82%. With the exception of the printers’ and the paper workers’ unions, the Bolsheviks had majorities on the executives of all of Petrograd’s industrial unions. Seventeen of the 23 members of the Petrograd Trade Union Council were Bolsheviks (Mandel 1984). The 20 August election to the Petrograd city Duma (municipal council) showed a remarkable increase in Bolshevik support. Not only did their share of the vote jump from approximately one-fifth in May to one-third, but the Bolsheviks were the only party to register an absolute increase in votes (Mandel 1984).
On 31 August the Petrograd Soviet passed the Bolshevik resolution “On Power”. The Moscow soviet followed on 5 September. In the first half of September, 80 soviets in large and medium towns backed the call for a transfer of power to the soviets (Smith 2002). When the Second Congress of Soviets convened in October, 507 of 670 delegates favoured a transfer of power to the soviets; almost all of those in the minority (who walked out in protest at the decision) were against soviet power in the first place (Rabinowitch 2004)
Rabinowitch explains Bolshevik success: ”the phenomenal success of the Bolsheviks can be attributed in no small measure to the nature of the party in 1917... [to] the party’s internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralised structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character” (2004). The Bolsheviks could now speak of themselves with some justification as the party of the proletariat. Not only did they enjoy the support of the vast majority of workers, but their party consisted of and to a large extent was run by workers (Mandel 1984).