Unless we accept the claim that Lenin’s coup d’état gave birth to an entirely new state, and indeed to a new era in the history of mankind, we must recognize in today’s Soviet Union the old empire of the Russians — the only empire that survived into the mid 1980’s’ (Luttwak, 1).
In their Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels applied the term communism to a final stage of socialism in which all class differences would disappear and humankind would live in harmony. Marx and Engels claimed to have discovered a scientific approach to socialism based on the laws of history.
They declared that the course of history was determined by the clash of opposing forces rooted in the economic system and the ownership of property. Just as the feudal system had given way to capitalism, so in time capitalism would give way to socialism. The class struggle of the future would be between the bourgeoisie, who were the capitalist employers, and the proletariat, who were the workers.
The struggle would end, according to Marx, in the socialist revolution and the attainment of full communism (Groiler’s Encyclopedia). Socialism, of which ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is a takeoff, originated in the West.
Designed in France and Germany, it was brought into Russia in the middle of the nineteenth century and promptly attracted support among the country’s educated, public-minded elite, who at that time were called intelligentsia (Pipes, 21). After Revolution broke out over Europe in 1848 the modern working class appeared on the scene as a major historical force.
However, Russia remained out of the changes that Europe was experiencing. As a socialist movement and inclination, the Russian Social-Democratic Party continued the traditions of all the Russian Revolutions of the past, with the goal of conquering political freedom (Daniels 7). As early as 1894, when he was twenty-four, Lenin had become a revolutionary agitator and a convinced Marxist. He exhibited his new faith and his polemical talents in a diatribe of that year against the peasant-oriented socialism of the Populists led by N.K. Mikhiaiovsky (Wren, 3).
While Marxism had been winning adherents among the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia for more than a decade previously, a claimed Marxist party was bit organized until 1898. In that year a ‘congress’ of nine men met at Minsk to proclaim the establishment of the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party. The Manifesto issued in the name of the congress after the police broke it up was drawn up by the economist Peter Struve, a member of the moderate ‘legal Marxist’ group who soon afterward left the Marxist movement altogether.
The manifesto is indicative of the way Marxism was applied to Russian conditions, and of the special role for the proletariat (Pipes, 11). The first true congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party was the Second. It convened in Brussels in the summer of 1903, but was forced by the interference of the Belgian authorities to move to London, where the proceedings were concluded.
The Second Congress was the occasion for bitter wrangling among the representatives of various Russian Marxist Factions, and ended in a deep split that was mainly caused by Lenin — his personality, his drive for power in the movement, and his ‘hard’ philosophy of the disciplined party organization.
At the close of the congress Lenin commanded a temporary majority for his faction and seized upon the label ‘Bolshevik’ (Russian for Majority), while his opponents who inclined to the ‘soft’ or more democratic position became known as the ‘Mensheviks’ or minority (Daniels, 19). Though born only in 1879, Trotsky had gained a leading place among the Russian Social-Democrats by the time of the Second party Congress in 1903. He represented ultra-radical sentiment that could not reconcile itself to Lenin’s stress on the party organization.
Trotsky stayed with the Menshevik faction until he joined Lenin in 1917. From that point on, he accommodated himself in large measure to Lenin’s philosophy of party dictatorship, but his reservations came to the surface again in the years after his fall from power (Stoessinger, 13). In the months after the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Party Lenin lost his majority and began organizing a rebellious group of Bolsheviks.
This was to be in opposition to the new majority of the congress, the Menshiviks, led by Trotsky. Twenty-two Bolsheviks, including Lenin, met in Geneva in August of 1904 to promote the idea of the highly disciplined party and to urge the reorganization of the whole Social-Democratic movement on Leninist lines (Stoessinger, 33).
The differences between Lenin and the Bogdanov group of revolutionary romantics came to its peak in 1909. Lenin denounced the otzovists, also known as the realists, who wanted to recall the Bolshevik deputies in the Duma, and the ultimatists who demanded that the deputies take a more radical stand — both for their philosophical vagaries which he rejected as idealism, and for the utopian purism of their refusal to take tactical advantage of the Duma.
The real issue was Lenin’s control of the faction and the enforcement of his brand of Marxist orthodoxy. Lenin demonstrated his grip of the Bolshevik faction at a meeting in Paris of the editors of the Bolsheviks’ factional paper, which had become the headquarters of the faction. Bogdanov and his followers were expelled from the Bolshevik faction, though they remained within the Social-Democratic fold (Wren, 95).
On March 8 of 1917 a severe food shortage caused riots in Petrograd. The crowds demanded food and the step down of Tsar. When the troops were called in to disperse the crowds, they refused to fire their weapons and joined in the rioting. The army generals reported that it would be pointless to send in any more troops, because they would only join in with the other rioters.
The frustrated tsar responded by stepping down from power, ending the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty (Farah, 580). With the tsar out of power, a new provisional government took over made up of middle-class Duma representatives. Also rising to power was a rival government called the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies consisting of workers and peasants of socialist and revolutionary groups.
Other soviets formed in towns and villages all across the country. All of the soviets worked to push a three-point program which called for immediate action, the transfer of land to peasants, and control of factories to workers. But the provisional government stood in conflict with the other smaller governments and the hardships of war hit the country.
The provisional government was so busy fighting the war that they neglected the social problems it faced, losing much needed support (Farah, 580). The Bolsheviks in Russia were confused and divided about how to regard the Provisional Government, but most of them, including Stalin, were inclined to accept it for the time being on condition that it works for an end to the war.
When Lenin reached Russia in April after his famous ‘sealed car’ trip across Germany, he quickly denounced his Bolshevik colleagues for failing to take a sufficiently revolutionary stand (Daniels, 88). In August of 1917, while Lenin was in hiding and the party had been basically outlawed by the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks managed to hold their first party congress since 1907 regardless. The most significant part of the debate turned on the possibility for immediate revolutionary action in Russia and the relation of this to the international upheaval.
The separation between the utopian internationalists and the more practical Russia-oriented people was already apparent (Pipes, 127). The Bolsheviks’ hope of seizing power was hardly secret. Bold refusal of the provisional Government was one of their major ideals. Three weeks before the revolt they decided to stage a demonstrative walkout from the advisory assembly.
When the walkout was staged, Trotsky denounced the Provisional Government for its alleged counterrevolutionary objectives and called on the people of Russia to support the Bolsheviks (Daniels, 110). On October 10 of 1917, Lenin made the decision to take power. He came secretly to Petrograd to try and disperse any hesitancy the Bolshevik leadership had over his demand for armed revolt.
Against the opposition of two of Lenin’s long-time lieutenants, Zinoviev and Kamenev, the Central Committee accepted Lenin’s resolution which formally instructed the party organizations to prepare for the seizure of power. Finally, on October 25 the Bolshevik revolution took place to overthrow the provisional government.
They did so through the agency of the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. They forcibly overthrew the provisional government by taking over all of the government buildings, such as the post office, and big corporations, such as the power companies, the shipyard, the telephone company. The endorsement of the coup was secured from the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was concurrently in session.
This was known as the ‘October Revolution’ (Luttwak, 74) through this, control of Russia was shifted to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. IN a quick series of decrees, the new ‘soviet’ government instituted a number of sweeping reforms, some long overdue and some quite revolutionary. They ranged from ‘democratic’ reforms, such as the disestablishment of the church and equality for the national minorities, to the recognition of the peasants’ land seizures and to openly socialist steps such as the nationalization of banks.
The Provisional Government’s commitment to the war effort was denounced. Four decrees were put into action. The first four from the Bolshevik Revolutionary Legislation were a decree on peace, a decree on land, a decree on the suppression of hostile newspapers, and a declaration of the rights of the peoples of Russia (Stossenger, 130). By early 1918 the Bolshevik critics individually made their peace with Lenin, and were accepted back into the party and governmental leadership.
At the same time, the Left and Soviet administration thus acquired the exclusively Communist character which it has had ever since. The Left SR’s like the right SR’s and the Mensheviks, continued to function in the soviets as a more or less legal opposition until the outbreak of large-scale civil war in the middle of 1918. At that point the opposition parties took positions which were either equally vocal or openly anti-Bolshevik, and one after another, they were suppressed.
The Eastern Front had been relatively quiet during 1917, and shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution a temporary armistice was agreed upon. Peace negotiations were then begun at the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk, behind the German lines. In agreement with their earlier anti-imperialist line, the Bolshevik negotiators, headed by Trotsky, used the talks as a discussion for revolutionary propaganda, while most of the party expected the eventual return of war in the name of revolution.
Lenin startled his followers in January of 1918 by explicitly demanding that the Soviet republic meet the German conditions and conclude a formal peace in order to win what he regarded as an indispensable ‘breathing spell,’ instead of shallowly risking the future of the revolution (Daniels, 135). Trotsky resigned as Foreign Commissar during the Brest-Litovsk crisis, but he was immediately appointed Commissar of Military Affairs and entrusted with the creation of a new Red Army to replace the Old Russian army which had dissolved during the revolution.
Many Communists wanted to new military force to be built upon strictly revolutionary principles, with guerrilla tactics, the election of officers, and the abolition of traditional discipline. Trotsky set himself emphatically against this attitude and demanded an army organized in the conventional way and employing ‘military specialists’ — experienced officers from the old army.
Hostilities between the Communists and the Whites, who were the groups opposed to the Bolsheviks, reached a decisive climax in 1919. Intervention by the allied powers on the side of the Whites almost brought them victory. Facing the most serious White threat led by General Denikin in Southern Russia, Lenin appealed to his followers for a supreme effort, and threatened ruthless repression of any opposition behind the lines.
By early 1920 the principal White forces were defeated (Wren, 151). For three years the rivalry went on with the Whites capturing areas and killing anyone suspected of Communist practices. Even though the Whites had more soldiers in their army, they were not nearly neither as organized nor as efficient as the Reds, and therefore were unable to rise up (Farah, 582).Police action by the Bolsheviks to combat political opposition commenced with the creation of the ‘Cheka.’ Under the direction of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka became the prototype of totalitarian secret police systems, enjoying at critical times the right of unlimited arrest and summary execution of suspects and hostages.
The principle of such police surveillance over the political leanings of the Soviet population has remained in effect ever since, despite the varying intensity of repression and the organizational changes of the police — from Cheka to GPU (The State Political Administration) to NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) to MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) to the now well-known KGB (Committee for State Security) (Pipes, 140).
Lenin used his secret police in his plans to use terror to achieve his goals and as a political weapon against his enemies. Anyone opposed to the communist state was arrested. Many socialists who had backed Lenin’s revolution at first now had second thoughts. To escape punishment, they fled. By 1921 Lenin had strengthened his control and the White armies and their allies had been defeated (Farah, 582).
Communism had now been established and Russia had become a socialist country. Russia was also given a new name: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This in theory meant that the means of production were in the hands of the state. The state, in turn, would build the future, classless society. But still, the power was in the hands of the party (Farah, 583). The next decade was ruled by a collective dictatorship of the top party leaders. At the top-level individuals still spoke for themselves, and considerable freedom for factional controversy remained despite the principles of unity laid down in 1921.
Daniels, Robert V., A Documentary History of Communism. New York: Random House Publishing, 1960.Farah, Mounir, The Human Experience. Columbus: Bell & Howess Co., 1990.
Luttwak, Edward N., The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Pipes, Richard, Survival is Not Enough. New York: S&S Publishing, 1975.
Stoessinger, John G., Nations in Darkness. Boston: Howard Books, 1985.
Wren, Christopher S., The End of the Line. San Francisco: Blackhawk Publishing, 1988.