Power In The Hands Of The People - For A While: One hundred years on, the revolution which the Bolsheviks not so much made, as destroyed, deserves to be remembered for what it was – a joyous eruption of ‘people power’. It unleashed the creative political and cultural energies of ordinary men and women in ways that by turns astounded, delighted and inspired the whole world. So much so that, even today, a century later, it is the event’s historic assertion: that a better world is possible; which keeps the vivid colours of the Russian people’s revolution so bright in the memory – and hopes – of humankind.
“GO HOME!” Ordered the Bolshevik soldiers surrounding the Tauride Palace in Petrograd. The assembled delegates to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly looked at the rifles and bayonets pointed at them, looked at one another, and dispersed. Thus, was representative democracy ushered-off the Russian political stage in the snows and freezing mists of January 1918. The Assembly, elected by more than 40 million Russians in the first free election of their nation’s history, had deliberated for precisely thirteen hours.
The shutting down of the Constituent Assembly by the Bolshevik government of Vladimir Lenin provoked very little in the way of protest. Lawyers and other professionals objected, of course, rightly foreseeing that a revolutionary regime upheld by rifles and bayonets was unlikely to be the most reliable guarantor of individual liberty and human rights. For the remainder of the politically active population, however, there was simply too much going on.
Their revolution, which had begun nine months earlier on International Women’s Day (8 March) 1917 was still in full-swing, Constituent Assembly, or no Constituent Assembly. So, too, was the debate about the best form of democracy. Perhaps Comrade Lenin was right on this issue. Perhaps the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ “soviets” (councils) whose members were directly elected at the factory, barracks and village level, and instantly recallable if they deviated from their mandates, were a better and more accountable form of democratic representation.
What mattered most to Russia’s political activists in the winter of 1917-18 was their conviction that the revolution still belonged to them: that they were still in charge; still directing the flow of events. Many of them, while harbouring serious reservations about the Bolsheviks’ blatantly unconstitutional seizure of power on 7 November 1917, were nevertheless relieved that the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, and its criminal determination to continue the war against Germany, had been removed. They were also heartened by the Bolsheviks’ uncompromising determination to defend the revolution against Tsarist reactionaries like Kornilov. It was possible to fault Lenin’s methods, but not his revolutionary zeal!
With the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is easy to dismiss these notions as short-sighted and naïve. How could any thinking Russian not understand that a political party guilty of seizing power in a carefully-planned and ruthlessly executed coup d’état had already pronounced the revolution’s death sentence? That the Bolshevik’s aggressively ideological regime, based on the fragile majorities it had constructed in the far-from-stable urban soviets (while the peasantry, 80 percent of Russia’s population, gave their support, overwhelmingly, to the Bolshevik’s rivals, the Socialist Revolutionary Party) could only ever be a regime of rifles and bayonets?
Easy, yes, but wrong. It would take the Bolsheviks many years to fasten a collar around the boisterous puppy that was the Russian Revolution. Many years, during which they would have to overcome innumerable setbacks and dangers.
On 30 August 1918, the young Left Socialist Revolutionary, Fanny Kaplan, very nearly assassinated Lenin. Her party had rebelled against Lenin’s cession of vast tracts of the former Russian Empire to their German foes in the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, causing the Bolsheviks to proscribe her party and arrest its leaders. Lenin recovered from Kaplan’s attack, but her bullets left him frail and in deteriorating health.
In the crackdown that followed Kaplan’s attempted assassination, the Bolshevik “Extraordinary Commission”, the Cheka, began its ominous transition: from skilful intelligence gatherer, to the Bolshevik Government’s terroristic secret police.
Meanwhile, the British, French and Americans dispatched troops to Russia, and supplied huge quantities of arms and ammunition to the counter-revolutionary “Whites”, in a concerted effort to strangle the world’s first socialist revolution in its cradle. The resulting civil war which raged from 1918 until well into the 1920s cost millions of Russian lives – including tens-of-thousands of the most decent and democratic Bolsheviks.
As we who live in the Twenty-First Century can well attest, civil wars and the terror-tactics they unleash are tremendously corrosive of civilised values and the democratic institutions they underpin. Mass killing and systematic repression coarsens a culture – raising up sociopaths and psychopaths to dangerously important political and administrative positions. Socialism did not make Joseph Stalin inevitable, but the Bolsheviks’ utter refusal to share power with any of the other participants in the Russian Revolution most certainly did.
One hundred years on, the revolution which the Bolsheviks not so much made, as destroyed, deserves to be remembered for what it was – a joyous eruption of ‘people power’. It unleashed the creative political and cultural energies of ordinary men and women in ways that by turns astounded, delighted and inspired the whole world. So much so that, even today, a century later, it is the event’s historic assertion: that a better world is possible; which keeps the vivid colours of the Russian people’s revolution so bright in the memory – and hopes – of humankind.