The Few Who Won

How should we understand the October Revolution and its tragic aftermath?

Illustration by Luke Brooks

A devout Polish Catholic, Felix Dzerzhinsky was once asked why he was sure there was a God. “God is in the heart,” the teenager replied. “If I ever come to the conclusion that there is no God, I would put a bullet in my head.”

A few years later, he realized just how alone humanity was. But instead of a bullet, he found a new faith, vowing “to fight against evil to the last breath” as a revolutionary socialist. By age forty, he was clad in black leather, designing a bloody terror as head of the young Soviet Union’s secret police.

This story of zealotry fits with the popular image of Bolshevism — a conspiratorial sect, singular in purpose. By virtue of their ruthlessness, they would take advantage of 1917’s democratic upheavals, perverting the noble February Revolution into the bloody excesses of October. That Stalinism emerged from its womb is no surprise — the extremism of men like Dzerzhinsky, confident the utopia they were building was worth any cost, made it all but certain.

The narrative is neat, and seemingly vindicated by history. The system that emerged out of the October Revolution was a moral catastrophe. But more than that, it was a tragedy — and tragedies don’t need villains.

Take Dzerzhinsky’s socialism. It was rooted in the humanist idea that the “present hellish life with its wolfish exploitation, oppression, and violence” could give way to an order “based on harmony, a full life embracing society as a whole.” The future executioner suffered for his beliefs — eleven out of twenty years underground spent in prison or exile — “in the torments of loneliness, longing for the world and for life.”

Poor, tortured, imprisoned, and martyred, the revolutionaries of Russia seemed destined to meet the same fate as radicals elsewhere in Europe. Only they didn’t. After half decade in solitary confinement, enduring beatings that permanently disfigured his jaw, Dzerzhinsky’s last letter from prison was resolute: “At the moment I am dozing, like a bear in his winter den; all that remains is the thought that spring will come and I will cease to suck my paw and all the strength that still remains in my body and soul will manifest itself. Live I will.”

Here’s what happens when noble, determined people win — and find themselves in an unwinnable situation.

The Bolsheviks Before Bolshevism

In the Cold War, both sides painted Vladimir Lenin and his party as special — unique in their brutality or their model for revolution. But despite being an underground movement, it’s striking just how ordinary they were. Lenin saw himself as an orthodox Marxist, trying to adapt the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) plan to a largely rural and peasant country with a weak civil society and mass illiteracy.

The supposed proto-totalitarian smoking gun, Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, does have unusual elements. Lenin calls for professional organizers capable of eluding police and places special emphasis on the role of print propaganda, for instance. But it wasn’t a blueprint for a radically different party; rather, these were tactics needed for a movement barred from the legal organizing and parliamentary work pursued by its counterparts elsewhere. Once tsarism was overthrown, backward Russia and its small working class could develop along Western lines and push the struggle further.

Siding with Karl Kautsky, Lenin took aim at Eduard Bernstein and others on the SPD’s right wing for trying to change “a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms.” To be a revolutionary, for Lenin, meant smashing the capitalist state — it was a politics of rupture. But his project, unlike the “Blanquists” he also denounced, was about cohering a workers’ movement and placing it at the center of political struggle, not creating a hardened core of putschists. For Lenin the problem wasn’t that workers weren’t flocking to the vanguard party, but that socialists were underestimating workers. His goal, following the German example, was a merger of the two currents — a militant socialist workers’ movement.

Then perhaps if not by design, the Bolsheviks were forced by repression to adopt a military-like structure that they would take into power. This claim, too, is doubtful. Bolshevik organs even functioned with transparency and pluralism few organizations in much rosier conditions today can match.

Take the “economists,” the grouping Lenin criticized so thoroughly in What Is to Be Done? He thought that they, like every other faction, deserved “to demand the opportunity to express and advocate views.” Lenin was hardly a genial interlocutor — like Marx, he was a fan of personal invective. Still, the leader had to deal with not getting his way. Between 1912 and 1914, forty-seven of his articles were refused by Pravda, the “party paper.”

Dissent cut through Russian social democracy; no one’s marching orders were followed without debate. It wasn’t just Bolshevik, Menshevik, and Socialist Revolutionary (SR), but dozens of shades of opinions among the Bolsheviks themselves.

On important political issues, however, the main wings of Russian social democracy were close. When the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks split in 1903, it was over small points of emphasis, not because of Lenin’s supposed call for a professional vanguard party. When the 1905 revolution arrived, all parts of the movement fought side by side. Most Mensheviks, like most Bolsheviks, opposed the Great War, a clarity matched by few socialists elsewhere in Europe. In the lead-up to February 1917, they differed on how to view the liberal bourgeoisie, but agreed that the immediate task of Russian social democracy was overthrowing autocracy, not socialist revolution. Only in this period did it become obvious what set the Bolsheviks apart.

Goodbye, Social Democracy

Lenin didn’t leave social democracy, it left him. When he first got news that the SPD had voted for war credits on August 4, 1914, he thought it was capitalist propaganda.

His faith was misplaced. Only fourteen of ninety-two German socialist deputies opposed the decision. Following parliamentary norms, they voted with the majority as a bloc. An antiwar politician, Hugo Haase, was made to read the party’s pro-war statement in the Reichstag. Socialists in the French Chamber of Deputies followed suit the same day.

Kautsky wasn’t a parliamentarian, but he was present at the debate. He suggested abstaining, but agreed that Germany was waging a defensive struggle against an eastern threat. Within a year, he changed his tune and vigorously denounced the SPD’s pro-war leadership and the German state, but the damage was done. The longstanding social-democratic idea, affirmed by the Second International in congress after congress, was that the growing power of the working class would maintain peace “by resolute intervention.” If war did come to pass, the parties would not only oppose it, they would use the “crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”

That was the theory — in reality, social democracy’s flagship not only voted for war, but promoted Burgfriedenspolitik, a policy of class peace to help it along. Sixteen million people died in the conflict.

For more than a century, the Leninist narrative was that Kautsky had been an ideal Marxist until almost the outbreak of World War I. It was his stance on war in 1914 and his opposition to the October Revolution in 1917 that transformed him from revered “Pope of Marxism” to a “great renegade.” In his 1939 obituary for the German socialist, Trotsky sounds like a scorned lover: “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”

Kautsky’s position on the war was indeed shocking. Within social democracy, a right-wing tendency had been growing among trade union leaders and parliamentarians who saw not just their own power, but that of the class they represented, as bound up more with the stability and prosperity of their respective nations than with vague notions of proletarian internationalism. But those were foes against whom Kautsky had waged intellectual and political battle for years.

“Modern society is ripe for revolution; and the bourgeoisie is not in a position to survive any insurrection.” Such a revolution would be won by “a well-disciplined minority, energetic and conscious of the goal.” Sounds like Lenin, but that was actually Kautsky.

There was, however, a growing gap between Kautsky’s ideas and those of his Russian admirers. He had developed a conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that differed from Lenin and Trotsky’s. Kautsky might have used language similar to theirs in the 1880s, just a decade removed from the Paris Commune and with the SPD still underground. But his thought subsequently evolved. He believed workers would win power through free elections, extend political and civil liberties, and radically reform, not smash, the existing state.

Kautsky was skeptical that direct democracy could operate at scale. Though never equating nationalization with socialism, neither did he advocate a council-based “soviet democracy.” He saw overcoming capitalism as a struggle that required political democracy and a long battle for popular support. Well before publishing The Road to Power and other late works praised by the Bolsheviks, he had developed ideas distinct from both social democracy’s reformist right and its revolutionary left.

But Lenin still looked to the Paris Commune of 1871 and the great revolutions of 1848 and 1789. This was the spirit that spawned the communist movement.

To the Finland Station

The 1905 revolution showed Lenin to be in step with his era. The “great dress rehearsal” came close to toppling tsarism and gave birth to the soviet.

Russia at that time was already pulsing with change. Rapid economic growth and social advance had taken place in the empire in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Industrial production doubled in the 1890s alone. Horses and carts and dusty tracks began to give way to vast railroads and, for a time, Russia even led the world in oil production.

But development was highly uneven. Saint Petersburg’s modern factories told little of life in an empire where, even in its European regions, only one in nine people lived in cities. Whatever Russia’s progress in absolute terms, it was falling ever further behind Western Europe.

In the countryside, agricultural development advanced at an even more glacial pace, failing to keep up with huge population growth. Land-hungry peasants pushed westward from their traditional communes into the steppes. Rural poverty was still endemic. With economic stagnation in the countryside and growing but patchy capitalist industry in a few cities, generalized scarcity went along with a small but highly politicized working class.

January 1905 caught the Bolsheviks by surprise. The timing and shape of the revolt was not what they expected. In October, Saint Petersburg workers established an organ to coordinate their actions. Factory delegates formed a soviet (council) in the city. The body soon became a kind of workers’ parliament, with representation from a range of trade unions and committees. It was essentially a functioning local government.

Trotsky, not Lenin, shined brightest in 1905. Neither Menshevik nor Bolshevik, but respected in both camps, he immediately grasped the revolution’s significance. Within the Santt Petersburg Soviet’s brief life, the twenty-six year old delegate emerged as an unparalleled orator and thinker. By the end of November, he was even elected its chair.

The situation by that point was untenable. As feared, Nicholas soon crushed the revolution and reneged on concessions promised to liberal forces. By April 1906, 14,000 people had been executed and 75,000 imprisoned.

But the revolutionaries now had a taste of real power. The transformation of Russian social democracy was stunning. Immediately before the 1905 revolution, the Bolsheviks had just 8,400 members. By the following spring, they could count 34,000 among them. The Mensheviks also drew thousands to their ranks.

The revolutionary movement finally had something Lenin had been aspiring to for years — a mass base of workers. Attempts to mend the divide between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks would fail, but all had a sense that they were in a new era and that the tsar would soon fall.

But none came as close as Trotsky to guessing what would happen next. Grasping 1905’s implications, Trotsky refined a novel theory of “permanent revolution.” Marxists had traditionally thought that revolution would happen in stages. The first of these would be “bourgeois-democratic”: economically, this stage would pave the way for peasant land reform and further urban industrialization; politically, it would create a capitalist republic with freedom of speech and assembly. That would then allow social democrats to patiently organize for a second, socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed on this — they just argued over the role liberal capitalists would play. Mensheviks thought they would be at the heart of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, while Lenin thought workers could reconcile their interests with those of peasants and drive the process themselves.

Trotsky foresaw a different scenario. Instead of a bourgeois democratic revolution, the peasants would defeat the gentry in the countryside and the workers would conquer capitalists in the city. This “proletarian-socialist” revolution would merge democratic and socialist tasks into one. In underdeveloped Russia, however, this would create a situation of flux, with exploiting classes defeated but no material basis for large-scale socialist construction. As a result, the sequence would have to be “furthered by an international revolutionary process.”

1917 saw Trotsky’s vision vindicated — but with one key exception: the international revolution didn’t come.

The Two Revolutions

Two years into the great war, three million Russians were dead, the empire’s economy was in ruins, yet the army pushed ahead with futile new offensives. In February 1917, the stalemate was broken from within.

As in 1905, Saint Petersburg (now Petrograd) and its working class led the upsurge. On International Women’s Day, February 23, women textile workers began a strike which spread across the city. By day’s end, 90,000 workers were involved; by the next day, 200,000. A similar situation developed in Moscow, where workers protested against skyrocketing inflation and bread shortages. Nicholas II refused concessions until he was forced to abdicate on March 1. The Romanov dynasty that had endured for three centuries was swept away in a week.

Its fall was almost universally celebrated. What to do next was less clear. The Bolsheviks’ doctrinal dispute with the Mensheviks over how to relate to the liberal bourgeoisie would prove important here. Though the Bolsheviks agreed that the time wasn’t ripe for socialism, they wanted workers and peasants to take power and carry out the revolution’s democratic tasks. But most workers were instead drawn to the Menshevik call to simply revive the soviets; these would assert the interests of the oppressed, but not capture state power themselves.

Liberals established a Provisional Committee to fill the void, but it had little social base. On March 1, the day of the tsar’s flight, soviet and liberal leaders came to an agreement: a new Provisional Government would form and agree to a wide range of reforms. Russia would have full civil liberties, with political prisoners released and the police and state apparatus transformed.

Important questions about the war, land reform, and elections remained unresolved, but the February Revolution was among the most sweeping the world had ever seen.

But a tense situation of “dual power” quickly emerged. Sovereign authority could now be claimed by the worker and soldier soviets and by the Provisional Government. Moderate socialists struggled to bridge the gap, believing they had to keep the “progressive bourgeoisie” within the February consensus.

They were right. Materially, Russia wasn’t ripe for socialism. But those finally released from tyranny weren’t going to wait patiently for Marxist schema to mature. Freed from generations of oppression, workers seized factories and peasants divided up estates. Popular committees sprang up across the country: rank-and-file soldier committees resisted their officers and peasant organizations oversaw unsanctioned land expropriations. Authority in all its forms was questioned: the aristocracy was gone, but for a supposed “bourgeois revolution,” the bourgeoisie was reeling.

Radicals didn’t drive the change, though they benefited from it. In February, there were 24,000 Bolsheviks; within months they became a mass organization ten times that size.

For now, however, the democratically elected soviets were still dominated by Menshevik and SR forces. And meanwhile, the dynamic between those bodies and the Provisional Government was frustrated by the latter’s lack of legitimacy. It’s not hard to understand why — Prince Georgy Lvov, a link to the old regime, was the nominal head of state and the Kadets and Octobrists that ran the government were terrified by the revolution that brought them to power. Liberals could pass decrees and try to restore order and continue the war effort, but their wishes simply weren’t carried out.

On March 1, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies published its famous Order Number One. It declared that military orders from the Provisional Government were to be carried out “except those which run counter to the orders and decrees issued by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” With Order Number One, the soviet demanded a key component of sovereignty, yet refused to actually make itself the functioning authority in the country.

Moderate socialists still looked to the Provisional Government, which had been reconstituted to include more left-wing forces, including Alexander Kerensky, himself an SR. The hope was that this alliance would calm the country and create an environment in which socialists could press democratic demands and find a route to end the war. For now the fighting would continue, but was to be strictly “defensive and without annexations.”

The Bolsheviks themselves were split on how to relate to the government. Returning from Siberian exile in March, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin saw the new republic as one that would stand for years, if not decades, and oriented the Bolsheviks along that time horizon.

Lenin, still in exile, was shocked by his party’s complacency. The day after his arrival at Finland Station he presented his April Theses, where he reaffirmed an uncompromising antiwar posture and essentially embraced Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Like Trotsky, Lenin thought that rather than let the revolution consolidate into a parliamentary republic, socialists should instead push it forward and build “a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’, and Peasants’ Deputies.” This wasn’t empty rhetoric: the soviets already had more popular legitimacy than the Provisional Government.

Against the tamer position of Kamenev and Stalin, Lenin said “No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear.” The die was cast — there would be another revolution in 1917.

Trotsky was also in exile when the February Revolution broke out, rousing the “workers and peasants of the Bronx” an ocean away. After a perilous return home, conditions were set for him and his followers to eventually join the Bolsheviks and play a pivotal role in the events to come.

The reception to Lenin’s April Theses among many Bolsheviks was frosty at first, but it found some popular support. Lenin also had an ally in the young Nikolai Bukharin, then on the left of the party. Lenin’s return and radical line elevated his stature.

The party was still split in this period: there were those like Lenin and Bukharin who looked to insurrection and those with a more moderate perspective — like Kamenev, Alexei Rykov, Viktor Nogin (who had long wanted to reunite with the Mensheviks), and Gregory Zinoviev. The latter wanted to replace the Provisional Government, but only with a broad coalition of socialist parties.

Lenin also didn’t want a premature uprising that would leave the Bolsheviks isolated and unable to last in power like the Communards of Paris. As late as June, he would stress that: “Even in the soviets of both capitals, not to speak now of the others, we are an insignificant minority … the majority of the masses are wavering but still believe the SRs and Mensheviks.”

But the party’s radical appeals were taking hold — tens of thousands of workers and soldiers joined. Some, inspired by slogans like “All Power to the Soviets,” launched spontaneous armed demonstrations in Petrograd against the Provisional Government in July. A crackdown followed — Trotsky was imprisoned for a time, Lenin fled, publications were banned, and the death penalty was reintroduced for soldiers. With the blessing of the Menshevik-SR majority, Kerensky’s Provisional Government claimed more power for itself.

During his two months hiding in Finland, Lenin finished The State and Revolution. His argument with reformists was premised on a simple point: “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Like Marx and Engels, he saw the state as a tool of class oppression. A tiny minority used it to rule over a great majority. The state was, unsurprisingly, bloody and repressive. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat and its allies, by contrast, it would be the great majority repressing a tiny minority. There would be some violence, then, but by comparison it would be minimal.

“We are not Utopians,” Lenin writes, “we do not ‘dream’ of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination.” But as socialism triumphed, the need for a repressive apparatus would dissipate and the state would wither away. Many have portrayed The State and Revolution as a false flag — a libertarian socialist document from the father of socialist authoritarianism. But it seems to have been a genuine indicator of his political worldview. It was the simplicity with which Lenin made his case that prefigured the problems Bolshevism would face once in power.

In August, it was the Right’s turn at revolt. General Kornilov, sensing the instability of the Provisional Government, tried to restore order by way of a coup. With no one else to call on for help, Kerensky appealed to the Petrograd Soviet. It easily beat back Kornilov, with the Bolsheviks playing a decisive role. The party’s prestige was at a high and Kerensky was forced to release its captured leaders. In late September, Trotsky once again became chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, now under the control of a Bolshevik majority. What was recently a small, radical party could now claim popular legitimacy. The stage was set for the October Revolution.

Yet before it could transpire, the Mensheviks and SRs had one last chance. The mood in the country had swung even further left. It was clear the Provisional Government had no independent means of defense in a country that now had six hundred radicalized soviets. Among the Mensheviks, steadily hemorrhaging support to the Bolsheviks, a left wing under Julius Martov was gaining strength. Martov was resolutely antiwar and in favor of more sweeping reforms than the Provisional Government could offer. His position was nearly indistinguishable from that of the moderate Bolsheviks.

The Mensheviks and SRs could have stepped in and taken power as part of a broad front of socialist parties to create a constituent assembly and a framework for reforms. The Bolsheviks could have formed a loyal opposition to such a government, or even directly joined it, as Kamenev and Zinoviev wanted. It was a moot point — the Mensheviks and SRs clung to the sinking Provisional Government, and even if they hadn’t, the parties were divided on the war. Lenin and Trotsky’s insurrection seemed like the only way.

With the Petrograd Soviet now under their control, Lenin finally convinced the Bolshevik Central Committee of that course. The “single greatest event in human history,” as socialists called it for decades, was anticlimactic. On October 24, Bolshevik units quickly occupied rail stations, telephone exchanges, and the state bank. The following day Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace and arrested the cabinet ministers. One-sixth of the world had been conquered in the name of the proletariat with barely a drop of blood spilled.

Did Lenin lead a coup? Though certainly not as spontaneous as the February Revolution, October represented a genuine popular revolution led by industrial workers, allied with elements of the peasantry. After the Kornilov coup, the Bolsheviks could claim a mandate for such an action. Their support was bolstered by a straightforward call for “peace, land, and bread.” The Mensheviks demanded patience from the long-suffering masses; the Bolsheviks made concrete promises. Making those desires a reality would be another matter, but the Bolsheviks were the force most militantly trying to fulfill the February Revolution’s frustrated goals.

In the first months after October, the character of the regime was not yet clear. The Bolsheviks didn’t initially seek a one-party state — circumstances, as well as their decisions, conspired to create one. Immediately after the revolution, it fell to the Second Congress of Soviets to ratify the transfer of power from the Provisional Government. From 318 soviets, 649 delegates were elected to the body. Reflecting a dramatic shift in mood, 390 of them were Bolshevik and 100 Left SRs (those Socialist Revolutionaries who supported the October rising).

Now transformed into a small minority, the Right SRs and Mensheviks attacked the Bolshevik action. Even Martov denounced the “coup d’état,” but also put forth a resolution calling for an interim all-Soviet government and plans for a constituent assembly. Many Bolsheviks supported the motion and it carried unanimously. Martov’s plan would have created the broad socialist government that many had sought in September — only now, in a more radical context, it would be pressured into taking principled positions on the war and land reform.

But as in September, the Right SRs and the Menshevik majority refused to go along. They walked out of the Congress, ceding the revolution’s future to the Bolsheviks. Martov still wanted a compromise — negotiations for the creation of a coalition socialist government. But now, just two hours later, with the moderates no longer in the hall, the Bolshevik mood hardened. “The rising of the masses of the people requires no justification,” Trotsky lectured his former comrade bitingly from the floor. “No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!”

Here is Trotsky epitomized — grand, rhetorically masterful, but tragically overconfident in the ordination of history. The delegates didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. They erupted into applause. Martov began to leave with the other left-Mensheviks. A young Bolshevik confronted him on the way out, upset that a great champion of the working class would abandon its revolution. Martov stopped before the exit and turned to him: “One day you will understand the crime in which you are taking part.”

Almost exactly twenty years to the day, that worker, Ivan Akulov, was killed in a Stalinist purge.

The Workers’ State

“We will now build the socialist order.” Lenin’s words just after the revolution suggested a radical course, but the Bolsheviks moved cautiously. Though they had popular support in a few major cities, they knew it would be a struggle to assert authority in a massive, mostly rural and peasant country.

They tried to make good on their program, however. Against the old elites’ resistance, worker control over production was expanded. Homosexuality was decriminalized, women won divorce and reproductive rights. Land rights were expanded to peasants, antisemitism was combated, and steps were made toward self-determination in the former empire Lenin called “a prison house of nations.”

In industry, Lenin’s vision of worker control wasn’t syndicalist (“the ridiculous transfer of the railways to the railwaymen, or the tanneries to the tanners”); in the long run, he looked to more coordinated class-wide methods of ownership. In the short term, he said, “the immediate introduction of socialism in Russia is impossible,” and argued instead for worker oversight of management, alongside the nationalization of key sectors. That wasn’t the limit of his horizons, of course. Lenin was impressed with the wartime economy in capitalist states. If planning in the service of chaos was already a reality, why shouldn’t planning in the service of human need — under the watch of democratic soviets — be possible?

The push for more extensive nationalizations came from the grassroots. A contradictory late November order gave factory committees a legal mandate to interfere in production and distribution, while still asserting management’s right to manage. Not surprisingly, it fueled disorder and further hampered production. Many workers took to taking over factories on their own accord. Often, these were honest attempts to restore production after capitalist sabotage or flight; at other times, workers responded to chaos by hoarding supplies and protecting their own interests.

Within months the Bolsheviks would have to clamp down on such actions — the immediate task was restoring basic productivity and order. It’s clear that the government intended to maintain a mixed economy at least until its rescue by revolutions elsewhere in Europe.

But the confusion of these months was helped along by the fact that Bolsheviks never clearly delineated between the overlapping jurisdictions of factory committees and trade unions and a sprawling complex of soviets, not to mention the central state. They had vacillated on these questions for tactical reasons in the pursuit of power. Centralization and the blurring of party and state were simple, pragmatic ways to resolve the dilemmas.

On the question of the war, the Bolsheviks also saw their hopes complicated. The situation was urgent. Though fighting was subsiding, between the February and October Revolutions one hundred thousand died on the Eastern Front. The Bolsheviks made a call to all governments for a “just and democratic peace.” If they refused, Lenin was confident that “the workers of these countries will understand the duty which now rests upon them of saving mankind from the horrors of war.”

The decree was ignored by the Entente powers and, for the moment, so was the call for revolution. Negotiations with the Central Powers began. Against Lenin’s advice, the Bolshevik Central Committee turned down an initial peace offer. “Left Communists” led by Bukharin wanted to continue the war and fan the flames of revolt in their enemies’ homes. It was a grave miscalculation. Taking advantage of strife within the young socialist state, the Germans and Austrians advanced, seizing a huge swathe of land from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk’s painful concessions followed, cutting the Soviet state from key agricultural and industrial heartlands and putting it in a weaker position to deal with growing civil unrest.

Attempts to undermine the Bolshevik government started from the day it took power in Petrograd. The White movement was an unholy alliance spanning the political spectrum — from right-Mensheviks and SRs to the liberal Kadet party to extreme nationalists and monarchists. Thirteen thousand American troops along with British, Canadian, French, Greek, Italian, and Japanese forces joined to aid a brutal domestic opposition. Against remarkable odds, the Bolsheviks oversaw the creation of a Red Army and triumphed in a five-year conflict that claimed nine million lives.

As Trotsky, that great army’s organizer, put it, “Having mounted the saddle, the rider is obliged to guide the horse — at the risk of breaking his neck.” The Bolshevik government rode on. Their argument for doing so was at first less about the immediate prospects for socialism within Russia and more in terms of a “holding action.” The survival of the first workers’ state would be a boon to the revolutionary movements that would take power in more advanced countries. These states would then come to the Bolsheviks’ rescue and help rebuild the country as part of a broader proletarian confederation.

It wasn’t as fantastical as it sounds today: this was an era of upheaval. Not long after October, German communists launched an ill-fated series of revolts trying to follow the Russian example. Newly liberated Finland saw its democratically elected socialist government dislodged in a bloody civil war. In 1919, a Hungarian Soviet Republic briefly took power. Two red years of factory occupations and mass strikes shook Italy. Even Ireland boasted soviets for a time.

Though the Bolsheviks still hoped for a breakthrough through the newly formed Communist International, it was becoming clear that no salvation from abroad was on its way. Lenin’s party had made a justified gamble to protect and extend the February Revolution’s gains and help end not just one grisly war, but all future ones as well. That gamble failed. And now with the only apparent alternatives to their leadership being a right-wing military dictatorship or even a form of Judeocidal fascism, they pressed on. Faced with an impossible dilemma, what the Bolsheviks had to do to survive would only exacerbate the party’s worst tendencies.

Terrorism and Communism

The moment called for hardened men like Dzerzhinsky. His newly formed Cheka would collect information from across the empire and act on it immediately. Interrogations were quick, and those who failed to dispel suspicion were stood up against a wall and shot. With Lenin’s blessing, the Cheka grew two hundred thousand strong and led a Red Terror in which as many were killed.

Were such terrible acts necessary to win history’s most destructive civil war? Maybe, but the methods in which they were conducted certainly were not. There were no external controls on the Cheka’s arrests and executions — the example of Dzerzhinsky’s disciplined leadership would never be enough to curb excesses. Collective punishment, state terror, and intimidation — all these were initially exceptional measures that became norms when social conflict reemerged during Stalin’s reign.

Though one can overstate the comparison, Abraham Lincoln’s US Civil War government declared martial law, suspended habeas corpus, detained thousands, and used military tribunals, among other extra-constitutional measures. But these were recognized as temporary deviations necessary for the restoration of normal republican government, which was restored before long.

The Bolsheviks didn’t delineate their state of exception clearly enough, blurring together actions taken out of necessity and those performed out of virtue. There was no clear bedrock of rights and protections that Soviet citizens could claim once the emergency of war subsided. Open debate within the newly formed Communist Party would continue for some time, including factions pushing for democracy and worker power. But the broader political culture of engagement and contestation — sustained by a network of parties and newspapers — that had survived underground for long decades under tsarism would never reemerge.

A central problem was the lack of clear agreement on what the dictatorship of the proletariat should look like. Like other wings of social democracy, the Bolsheviks focused on seizing power, not exercising it. Aside from vague sketches, they hadn’t thought much about politics after revolution. With the exploiting classes gone, would the proletariat need a socialist theory of jurisprudence or institutional checks on power? Caught in an unprecedented situation, they made it up as they went along.

From War Communism to the NEP

Moves toward “war communism” were spurred more by practical necessity than ideological zeal. Years of revolution and unrelenting war had disrupted agricultural production. Peasants had little incentive to direct what was still produced to the cities — there was a shortage of consumer goods and grain prices continued to decline in relation to those goods. A black market naturally developed, a market the tsarist state and Provisional Government both sought to combat.

The Bolsheviks continued that course, but even more ruthlessly — applying their class analysis to the countryside, which they saw as divided between poor peasants, middle peasants, and wealthy kulaks. They hoped to maintain support by focusing their actions on the latter, but divisions on the ground were less clear, and the presence of armed requisition squads searching for hoarders only served as a further disincentive to production. Despite the banning of private trade and energetic repression, it was largely thanks to the black market that Russian cities survived the Civil War.

The Bolshevik industrial policy also shifted in this period. The government nationalized the entire economy, instituted rationing, and imposed strict labor discipline. Not even the moderate visions of worker control survived the return to one-man management. No capitalist sabotage was necessary — shortages of parts and raw materials slowed production to a crawl. Highly ideological initiatives, like the attempt to construct moneyless budgets, coexisted with the reality of wholesale economic regression. By 1921, Russian industry was less than one-third its prewar size.

The Soviet state’s political base was decimated, too. Some industrial workers died in the Civil War, while others left starving cities and tried their chances in the countryside.

With the dream of German revolution buried for now, the issues were now practical ones: how to restore and expand Russian industry, and how to revive the worker- peasant alliance that sparked the revolution.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was a step in this direction. The state still controlled the commanding heights of the economy — large industries, banking, and foreign trade — but markets were legalized elsewhere. A tax on food producers replaced counterproductive forced requisitions, with peasants free to dispose of their goods how they wished once the tax was paid. Though the partnership would have to be skewed — peasant surplus was needed to restore and expand industry — the hope was to replace the direct coercion of war communism with accumulation through gradual, unequal exchange. Rather than forced collectivization, many NEP supporters looked to the voluntary creation of agricultural cooperatives that, in time, would outcompete what they saw as needlessly inefficient traditional peasant production.

Politically, the NEP was a period of hardening, not liberalization. Party leaders feared that the peasantry’s newfound economic power might morph into a political opposition. Not only opposition parties, but even internal Bolshevik factions were banned in 1921. There would still be debate within the party, but the Bolsheviks made clear that they would not step away from power. For the moment, the arts and intellectual life flowered undisturbed. But the one-party state was an easy trap to fall into: with the Civil War, foreign intervention, blockade, and plots against the leadership, who could deny that Russia was under siege? Then, with the war over, the task of reconstruction required reliable men of action. One such man, Stalin, rose to general secretary in 1922.

Lenin was wary of what he saw. But though he decried the party-state elite’s abuses and excesses, he failed to see that democratic reform, however risky, was the only possible counterbalance to that power. Approaching death, he warned specifically about Stalin, encouraging the party congress to remove him, but his wishes went unfulfilled. Once Lenin was gone, Stalin used his post to scatter the supporters of his rival Trotsky within the party. Still, Stalin was not yet in control.

Debate within the party soon crystallized between three main camps: the left opposition of Trotsky, Stalin’s current, and those around Bukharin, who now found himself on the party’s right.

Trotsky pushed for party democracy and other anti-bureaucratic measures, faster industrialization and collectivization at home, and aggressive revolutionary exhortations abroad. Bukharin was more cautious, seeking to continue slowly “riding into socialism on a peasant nag,” with some adjustments. Stalin vacillated between the two positions, displaying a political savvy few knew the Georgian possessed.

Trotsky saw the real danger not in Stalin’s bureaucratic centrism, but in the risk that Bukharin’s program would accidentally bring about the restoration of capitalism. Bukharin, too, took far too long to see Stalin as a threat. Yet even had they united, Stalin might have been destined to win: he applauded the party men Trotsky criticized.

Meanwhile, Trotsky’s call for industrial rejuvenation hardly won him goodwill among the peasant majority outside the party. And without the support of the bureaucracy or the peasantry — and with the old Bolshevik workers dead or exhausted — on what social basis could Trotsky hope to win? Confidence in the dialectic of history wasn’t enough.

Trotsky was removed from power in late 1927 and sent into exile shortly after. Until his murder thirteen years later, he remained Stalinism’s greatest critic. Yet he couldn’t admit that any part of the system he so despised had its genesis in the early repression that he himself had helped engineer.

Stalin and His Children

Despite the political turmoil in Russia, the NEP was working. By 1926, Soviet industry had surpassed prewar levels — a remarkable turnaround from just five years prior. What to do with this new wealth was hotly debated: agricultural improvements and light industry or heavy industry? These choices weren’t just technical. For a party that grounded its legitimacy in an industrial proletariat, continuing along the NEP route had profound political implications.

With the left opposition eliminated and his erstwhile ally Bukharin marginalized, Stalin was free to answer these questions as he saw fit. He was growing frustrated with the NEP. Industrial investment increased, yet grain prices were kept low. Peasants, naturally, clung to their stock. Periodic crises of this kind occurred throughout the 1920s, as industrial and agricultural prices fell out of sync.

In the past, these problems had been alleviated through price adjustments and other policy changes.

This time, however, Stalin made no such adjustment. Instead he sent police to commandeer legally produced and traded grain. Local officials who followed existing laws were dismissed. A new period of coercion against every layer of the peasantry was born. Stalin wanted a “revolution from above.” The first show trials took place, the first five-year plan was introduced, which called for the tripling of industrial output and investment.

And then, without warning, millions were forcefully collectivized into farms. Planners thought this would permanently solve food supply issues. It had the opposite effect — production fell dramatically and scapegoats had to be found. Collective punishment returned, not just against supposedly wealthy kulaks, but now also against “ideological kulaks,” that is, those who opposed the policy. At least six million perished in famine, and millions more would spend their lives in a vast network of forced-labor camps.

Many, of course, resisted the new serfdom. Stalin’s own wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, committed suicide in 1932 to protest the new course. But there was no serious challenge to the dictator. Within a decade, a once-vibrant, fractious party became a monolithic sect.

Yet if we can close our eyes to the cost, the five-year plan was a success. The Soviet Union made an incredible advance — largely in spite of forced collectivization, rather than because of it. State planning led to a rapid rise in GDP, capital accumulation, and consumption. Foreign observers downplayed reports of mass famine and celebrated the achievement. (Not just the Daily Worker, but also liberal outlets like the New York Times and the Nation.) As the fascist threat grew, so did Communist prestige. But this economic breakthrough was accompanied by new political terror. A campaign of mass murder began in 1936, with thousands purged from the Communist Party, including lifelong Bolsheviks. Many of them were imprisoned as counterrevolutionaries, forced to confess to elaborate plots, and then executed. More than half a million were killed.

Stalin had used a food shortage to transform the Soviet Union from a slowly rebounding authoritarian state to a horrific totalitarian regime unlike any the world had ever seen.

Dzerzhinsky, who died of a heart attack in 1926, supposedly anguished over every execution order he signed. He was replaced by men with no such compunction.

Stalin’s Soviet Union did win a great war against a far greater evil. Yet for every action the leader took to defeat fascism, he took another to undermine the antifascist struggle —supporting the disastrous Third Period policy, purging the Red Army of capable officers, ignoring news of imminent Nazi invasion. The victorious regime was deeply conservative, pursuing great power policies on a scale even the tsars couldn’t have imagined, along with episodes of mass ethnic cleansing and even its share of antisemitism. Under Stalin, the worldwide Communist movement, too, became a tool of Russian national interests rather than one of working-class emancipation.

Once Stalin was gone, the Soviet system morphed into something profoundly different. His command economy remained, but the bureaucrats who now ruled remained haunted by the totalitarian terror that had cut through their own ranks. The new order was grey and repressive, but capable for a while of delivering peace and stability. Yet the ruling elite had no interest in building a free civil society from which socialist democracy might have sprung. Attempts to renovate the system only undermined the coercion that held it together. Its collapse gave way to an even more predatory order.

For a century, socialists have looked back at the October Revolution — sometimes with rose-colored glasses, sometimes to play at simplistic counterfactuals. But sometimes for good reason. Exploitation and inequality are still alive and well amid plenty. Even knowing how their story ended, we can learn from those who dared to fight for something better.

Yet both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1917. The Mensheviks’ faith in Russian liberals was misplaced, as were the Bolsheviks’ hopes for world revolution and an easy leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. The Bolsheviks, having seen over ten million killed in a capitalist war, and living in an era of upheaval, can be forgiven. We can also forgive them because they were first.

What is less forgivable is that a model built from errors and excesses, forged in the worst of conditions, came to dominate a left living in an unrecognizable world.