The Prelude to the Russian Revolution of 1917
The contradiction of feudalism, military capitalism, and imperial ambitions, along with an unambitious bourgeoisie, were the prelude to the Russian Revolution of 2017, explains Prof. Aleksandr Buzgalin of Moscow State University
SHARMINI PERIES: I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The start of the Russian Revolution is often attributed to International Women’s Day demonstration that was held demanding peace, bread and land. Russia engaged in the brutal World War I, at the time. By the 25th of February a general strike was organized, and the Tsar Nicholas II ordered his troops to attack the protesters and arrest its leadership. Two days later, first a mutiny took place against the Tsar and the soldiers had joined the revolution of peasants and workers. By March 1st, the peasants, workers, and soldiers were running the greatest anti-capitalist revolution in history. By October 1917, the communist revolution in Russia, which birthed the Soviet Union, had changed the course of the 20th century.
Despite the fact that there was a failed revolution attempt in 1905, the Communist Party was well known, hated, and even feared throughout the capitalist world. A very few people actually anticipated the powerful Russian Empire would fall and will be replaced by the world’s first communist state. In looking back at history today, we are going to do three segments, and we are going to be joined by our favorite Russian guest, Alexander Buzgalin, who is professor of Political Economy at Moscow State University. He’s also the editor of the independent democratic left magazine Alternatives, and he is a coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives, and also the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles, essays translated into English, German and many other languages.
Alexander Buzgalin, I thank you so much for joining us today on this very interesting and auspicious day in commemorating the history of the Russian revolution.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I am very, very glad to be with you, and this is a really great day to discuss the question of revolution, which really changed the world. I think this is obligation and pleasure and even joy for me, and I hope for you.
SHARMINI PERIES: It is. Alexander, let’s begin with what was happening in 1916, the year before the revolution, in Russia. What were the conditions that people were facing at the time that created the ground for the revolution in 1917?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Well, first of all, in our country now, there are a lot of debates about the revolution and we have different positions. One of the typical approaches, which dominates now in Russia is very simple. It was fantastic development of Russian Empire with progress of industry, capitalism, in all spheres, but these people forget that really in 1917 Russia had not bad results in economic growth but generally speaking, it was country where 80% of the population were peasants, and peasants who were living in terrible semi-feudal conditions, with very often absence of the opportunity to produce enough food or small pieces of land they had, because main part of land were in the hands of the landlords, not in the hands of the producers.
Among the workers we had very big differentiation, because big parts of workers were organized in small groups and small towns and it was not a real industry. At the same time Russia really had very progressive industrial proletariat, but only in big cities and it was a few million people but very active, and well organized. But elite Russia had a very contradictory belief, if I can say belief, about its people. It was mixture of old aristocracy, huge number of bureaucrats who were around Tsar and who were supporters of the Tsar. A very big army from mainly aristocrats at Tsar’s offices and general. And at the same time it was bourgeoisie. It was a big concentration of… the bourgeoisie was very big and not ambitious. The bourgeoisie in Russia was semi-slave for bureaucrats and the Tsar administration. Very contradictory situation in the country.
Lenin, and not only Lenin, wrote that Russia had something like a feudal military, feudal capitalism or military, imperialistic feudalism, mixture of imperial ambitious, development of capitalism, even in imperialist forms, and also a lot of feudal elements of the life.
Also, it’s very important that Russia was very dependent from the West as far as industry, technologies, finance, and other spheres is concerned. Germany and United States, Britain, and France, they controlled a big part of Russian finance, Russian industry, even the production of oil and coal. This is reality.
But what is the most important aspect? Russian contradictions became very deep even before World War I. In 1914, in St. Petersburg, the capital of Russian Department of the Interior organized the strikes, demonstrations, and blockades of the streets. It was a few months before World War I. But then, World War I and millions of people are killed again and again every year in the fronts, from both sides. Germany, Turkey, Austrian Empire on one side, and France, Britain, Russia another side. Millions of people who are dying for military and imperialist ambitions of their countries, which started this war, including Russia.
In 1916, Russia has enormous amount of people killed in the fronts. Enormous amount of people who were dying from hunger and terrible conditions in the military sphere and the countryside because of a lot of expropriations.
In 1916, the so-called proizvoditelnost started. Proizvoditelnost typically is associated with the Bolshevik’s policy. It is production of bread from the peasants, military expropriation. But really this proizvoditelnost, this attack on the peasants and the expropriation of grain, bread, and other products. It was started by Tsar, before the revolution.
And finally, February Revolution of 1917 appeared not on the empty basis, it was a real basis for revolution. Because a lot of people didn’t have a penny, didn’t have a ruble to buy bread. And why women came to the streets, because their children were starving from hunger and the workers cannot bring enough money to buy products. It was shortage of ordinary products. For the aristocracy it was no problem to buy, don’t know, pineapples and oysters, but there was no bread for ordinary people. This contradiction led to the first ever Bolshevik Democratic Revolution in February 1917. This is a very briefly about situation in Russia before Revolution, in 1916 and little bit before 1916.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Alexander, Karl Marx in his writings explained that the revolution will emerge from internal contradictions in the capitalist system. He expected the industrial proletariat, people most directly affected by the capitalist system to become the revolutionary class and take over. However, it was actually in Russia most agrarian society economy with small proletariat, in which the Communist Party had its first successful revolution. Why were the conditions right for this kind of revolution at the time?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: This is still the topic for debate and we have now, when we celebrate 100th anniversary of October Revolution, system of forums, conferences, seminars, and so on, and every time we have debate, was it revolution according to Marx or was it revolution against Das Kapital. You know Gramsci wrote such article just after Revolution in Russian Empire. He said, “This revolution is of course great revolution but this is not according to the Marx theory of transformation of Capitalism into a Communist society.”
It’s true and not true. Why is it true? Why it was not revolution according to the Marx prediction? Because in Russia as I said, big part of population, majority of population, were peasants, because industrial proletariat was small part of population, and mainly in the capitals. Because, and I can’t contradict you, and you just mentioned these circumstances, but it is not true. Russia had the basis and necessity of revolution. I can say it is, Russian Revolution is result of the paradox, or even if I can say so, trap of the 20th century. Trap you know, like mouse trap, where there is cheese but then mouse will be killed if mouse will try to take this cheese. The same in Russia, it was 20th century trap.
From one hand yes, it was not enough material industrial pre-requisites for revolution. It was not enough to organize proletariat self-organization because the proletariat was weak part of the society, small part of the society. It was not enough cultural development for majority of population, and so on and so far. So revolution was impossible from this point of view. But there is another aspect. Revolution was absolutely necessary, and I can explain why.
First, war led to the terrible crisis of capitalism. Tsar’s government, Tsar’s power together with the corrupted officials and the bourgeoisie, which was trying to corrupt bureaucrats but not make democratic system. This leading force, this leaders of the society cannot continue their powerful life, cannot manage the country, and it was terrible crisis of this starting, first.
Second, war led to the mass killing of people, and majority of population, who were in the army, majority of people who were in the army, soldiers, yes, big part of them came from villages but big part came from factories and together they were relatively educated during three years of their life in army. They were organized, they have some forms of collectivism. And they were terribly angry against leaders, masters of Russian Empire because they created for them terrible conditions. No food, no bread for their families in the countryside and cities, and terrible bloody useless war, where they are dying. So that’s why we had strong force of soldiers who became organized, senate proletariat force, if you want.
Then, in the capitals, where Revolution was started in St. Petersburg, in Moscow, in big industrial cities. They had millions of organized proletariat masses and they were really organized. They had experience of 20 years of struggle, they had experience of revolution since 1905 to 1907. They had eight months experience of creation of Soviets. And these victories also very important.
From 1905, first Russian Revolution, our country had continuous grassroots initiative to create new form of democracy, Soviet form of democracy, direct democracy created by ordinary people. And from February Revolution in 1917, February 1917 ’til September, October 1917, Soviets came back to power. Soviets, which were representatives of peasants, representatives of workers, representatives of soldiers, and they could take power. By the way, Revolution was organized not exactly by Bolsheviks, or in future they had named communists, Revolution was acquired by Soviets, and Soviets were democratic power, Soviets were elected from below, from villages, from towns, from cities in all over Russia. Soviets required to change situation, it was three main requirements of Soviets.
First, stop the war. Peace. Peace is necessary. Second, it’s necessary to give land to the peasants. It’s a bourgeois measure, but it’s on the border between bourgeois revolution and socialist revolution. And third, factories to the people. I can add also, bread for people who are starving from poverty and hunger. And these three, four slogans became slogans of Bolsheviks. And they took slogans of people, not implementance of senate official. It was not co-organized by small group of politicians. It was mass attack. And by the way, I want to stress that in October 1917, a power … What institution took power?
Typical idea, Lenin took power and gave it to a few people. It’s not true, Soviets took power. Soviets in St. Petersburg, Moscow, in all regions of Russia. Moreover, in 80% of Russian regions, in October, November, December 1917 the power of Soviets was … Soviets took power by peaceful means. It was no war. Civil war started half a year after October Revolution, when Soviet Russia was attacked by Germany together with France, together with Britain, together with United States, together with Turkey, together with Austria and so on. So called White Guard, anti-Soviet, anti-communist forces started war.
Before, they could not do anything, the power was in the hands of the Soviets, not of the Bolsheviks. And then Soviets, majority of course supported Bolshevik party. But it was not Bolshevik members of the party in Soviets, who had majority, it was ordinary people, but ordinary people who said, “Bolsheviks are good. They are expressing our ideas.”
That’s why we had terrible contradiction, very important and very difficult contradiction. From one hand, Revolution is absolutely necessary. From another hand, Revolution is impossible because there is no material and cultural basis. As a result, we received extremely contradictory systems in Soviet Union. It was a very contradictory communist movement, which changed together with Soviet Union and other countries of real socialism the world. And we received a lot of interesting results.
I will just mention, because many people forget about that. 1918 was revolution in Germany, socialist revolution. And bourgeoisie together with liberals, social democrats if I can use modern language, they killed a lot of people in order to prevent socialist revolution in Germany. Hungary in 1919 again, mass repressions against left. By the way, even Finland which received independence from this government, they killed thousands and thousands of left people, communists, socialists, all types of them. It was camps, like gulag camps in Finland in 1918, 1919 with thousands of … I don’t know the exact figures, but it was a huge number of people for small Finland.
So then, it was a victory of left forces in Spain 1936. And why Spain was defeated? Because fascists organized comrade Spain in 1936 with support, partly legal support, partly formal, party informal support not only of forces Germany but also Britain and many other countries, even France. And a lot of such examples in Latin America, in India. In China 1949, victory of revolution with socialist trend. So, 20th century was century of socialist revolutions everywhere. And finally, it was century when left reforms, socialist, or other forms had victory.
Now, in many countries of Europe, free of charge education and schools. Even in universities, it’s something ordinary, normal, natural. But it is result of fantastic struggle including struggle in Soviet Union. Healthcare free of charge, or partly free of charge. Social insurance, minimum wage, eight-hours working day, and so on and so far, all these are results of left march, left trend, left attack, which took place in 20th century and October Revolution was starting point for this attack, this mass attack, international world attack on capital. This is my opinion.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alexander, while the 1905 attempted revolution was crushed by the Tsar’s own forces, the Bolsheviks and the Soviets in Russia had to overcome many enemies. They were not only facing the forces of the Tsar, but also expeditionary forces sent from capitalist countries, fresh from the First World War to try to nip the revolution. How did they fight back all of these forces at the same time to create the revolution?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: So, it’s a very complicated question. In 1905, revolution started as bourgeois revolution. I want to remind that Russian Empire in the beginning of 20th century was very old style semi-feudal country, with absolute monarchy, absolute power of Tsar and Tsar’s bureaucracy. Even bourgeoisie didn’t have enough power. They didn’t have parliament, they didn’t have parties, they didn’t have freedom of speech and so on and so far. So, revolution in 1905 started as bourgeois revolution. But also it has a lot of requirements from workers and peasants. For peasants, bourgeois revolution must give land. This is normal for bourgeois revolution and in Russian Empire that was not in the hands of peasants, it was in the hands of landlords. And peasants didn’t have enough land to produce even a little bit food for families to survive. It was impossible, because lands in the hands of peasants was, pieces of land were very very small.
The same with workers’ question. 12, 14 hour days working day, very low wage, no education, terrible conditions for workers. And it was necessary to have radical, but bourgeois revolution. And idea of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, left parties, so-called Assyrians of socialist revolutionaries, they had requirements. Let’s say, they were bourgeois requirements, not socialist requirements. And they had hopes that then after victory of bourgeois revolution it would be possible to go in socialist direction.
But when first step of bourgeois revolution took place, bourgeois betrayed goals of bourgeois revolution. When they received small promises, not even guarantees, promises of Tsar, that will be created parliament not for decision making but for discussion of some questions under the supervision of Tsar bureaucrats, they said, “Oh, fantastic! We are happy, we received what we want!”
And that now changes in social sphere and continuation of exploitation by bureaucracy and by bourgeoisie at the same time. So revolution was betrayed because it was first attempt. It was not enough organization, experience, and again, it was not together with bourgeoisie, bourgeois revolution.
In 1917, first of all, bourgeois revolution took place because it was block of intelligents, workers, peasants, and what is the most important, soldiers, who understood that it’s necessary to change the world. Soldiers understood this, together with workers, peasants, and the intelligents. Bourgeoisie was not radical again. They had a lot of attempts to organize military coups, and establish a dictatorship in Russia. Kornilov coup d’état was prevented by left forces, and if they didn’t prevent this coup-de-tat in Russia, we could have a 1917 fascist dictatorship like Mussolini or maybe even Hitler. It could be the first terrible huge fascist country in the Euro-Asia continent. And left forces prevented this.
Plus, I want to say that World War I took place. Again and again I want to remind, revolution appeared not because of the peaceful development of capitalism and prosperity in Russia, but because of bloody, terrible war. This war created prerequisites for revolution also. But war is inevitable result of capitalism. Why can I say that capitalism created necessity of October Revolution.
And the why Soviet Russia was attacked together by, I want to stress again. In 1918 Germany, Austria and Turkey, who were in war against France, Britain and so-on, altogether, Germany, Turkey and Austria together with France, Britain, Japan and so on, attacked Soviet Russia. Why? Because they understood that today this is socialist revolution and attempt to build new society in Russian Empire. Tomorrow it will be in their countries. Tomorrow it will be in France or in Britain and so-on. And by the way, it was period when big necessity to stop the war was requirement of soldiers and opposition in many countries, so it was not an accident, this situation.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right Alexander. There’s so much more to discuss with you which we will take up in the next segment, which we are hoping to do with you on Monday. I thank you so much for joining us for now.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, thank you it was very provocative and important for us to develop. Thank you very much!
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.