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The Golden Era

Between October 1917 and April 1918, the Bolshevik government enacted the most radically democratic platform in history.

Victor Serge., chronicler of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Isidora / YouTube

Victor Serge began writing Year One of the Russian Revolution in Leningrad in 1928, just over a decade after the victorious revolution.

The year before, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), had expelled its Left Opposition, Serge among them. Three months later, Stalin’s regime arrested Serge and held him for seven to eight weeks. Soon after, he suffered an intestinal occlusion that nearly killed him. While recovering, Serge pledged to bear witness and write a “serviceable testimony” of these times.

The Left Opposition, whose best-known member was Leon Trotsky, had formed in 1923 to combat the growing power and privileges of bureaucracy, which was spreading like a cancer in the party and state. It protested the disappearance of democracy, the stifling dictatorship of the bureaucracy, the lack of a steady-paced industrial policy, and Stalin’s narrow nationalism, which represented not just a rejection of the Russian Revolution’s international character but of Marxism itself. The Left Opposition aimed to reverse a political drift that had already carried the revolution far away from its initial goals.

In Year One, Serge mounts a fiercely partisan, but nonetheless rigorous and honest, defense of the revolution and its ideals. Unlike his other works, this history was not based on personal experience. Serge, born in Belgium to exiled Russian Narodniks, had journeyed politically and geographically from his Belgian socialist youth to individualist anarchism in France as an “illegalist,” to anarcho-syndicalism in Spain.

He was in Barcelona when the women and men of Petrograd left their factories for the streets, overthrowing Russian autocracy in what would become known as the February Revolution. Serge set off for revolutionary Russia but was detained for fifteen months in a French concentration camp as a “Bolshevik suspect.” He was eventually traded in a prisoner exchange at the end of World War I and didn’t arrive in the Soviet Union until the beginning of year two.

Serge based his history on the eyewitness testimony of participants as well as a wide range of primary documents and texts. It is the work of a committed historian, speaking truth in the face of a fast-rising mountain of lies and distortions about the new regime and its critics.

Serge’s central claim in Year One was that the revolution was the expression of an unprecedented wave of workers’ self-organization and democracy, of rising soviet power. Even by the late 1920s, he felt obliged to demolish the emerging myth — propagated by the global counterrevolution — that the October Revolution represented a coup d’état pulled off by a tiny minority of conspirators who intended to establish a monopoly of power from the outset.

Serge’s book, and indeed his whole oeuvre, makes a systematic argument in favor of the contrasting view — that the revolution represented the political victory of democratic mass institutions, which were committed to realizing the Bolshevik and Soviet program for sociopolitical transformation. This was so, he claimed, even if these institutions had begun to decay very early on, as did the revolutionary process itself. The wealth of scholarship that has since emerged on the revolution and its early years has vindicated Serge’s theses.

Taking inspiration from both Serge and newer studies, I argue that the October insurrection was the culmination of an historically unprecedented expansion of workers’ self-organization and workers’ democracy that launched a period of mass revolutionary advance unparalleled in world history. We can conceptualize this “Golden Era” of the Russian Revolution in the following terms: the revolution progressed to the extent that workers’ democracy extended itself; it blossomed and bore fruit so long as workers’ power, instantiated in democratic institutions, sustained and reproduced itself; and it began to decline as democracy was weakened, undermined, and eventually “bled dry.”

From February to October, the soviets had become the critical organizing bodies of the maturing revolutionary process, the embodiment of workers’ democracy, ever more hegemonic in terms of political power. Over that same period, the Bolsheviks increased their influence within these self-organized councils, speaking in the name and interests of the working class and the peasantry — whose own initiatives and mass actions impelled them toward Bolshevism.

By summer and fall 1917, the Bolsheviks had won majorities in urban and rural soviets across the country because their program matched the demands of workers, peasants, and soldiers and because their organization was flexible enough to rapidly integrate activists and respond to their initiatives.

When the Bolsheviks led the insurrectionary overthrow of the Provisional Government in late October 1917, there could be no doubt that they aimed to realize the interests of the population as a whole. The insurrection opened the way to a succession of formal and informal victories against the interests of capitalists and feudal landlords.

The Bolsheviks were determined to carry out their program of delivering peace, land, and bread, and putting factories under workers control. These were the people’s demands, expressed by the soviets.

Nevertheless, as is by now well understood, Russia’s profound economic, social, and geopolitical underdevelopment stood in the way. Even in this most creative period of the revolution, the steps taken to realize its promises inadvertently imposed barriers that prevented further advance or set off processes of reaction. The revolution’s progress was simultaneously a process of self-limitation as its achievements established obstacles to greater advances.

From Insurrection to Golden Age

When the tsar abdicated in February 1917, Serge wrote, the “improbable became reality.” The train of revolution was in motion, and it could not stop halfway: the peasants would seize the land, the workers the factories, and humanity would make a great leap forward.

Workers around the world greeted the revolution with jubilation because it represented their broadest aspirations, “a new democracy of free workers, such as had never before been seen.” Hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, and soldiers took their fate into their own hands, organizing collectively to form committees and councils — called soviets in Russian — and to develop their own politics, leaders, and power.

Despite important interruptions, the period between the revolutionary overthrow in February and the insurrection in October saw the democratic power of workers’ and peasants’ institutions continuously grow.

The interactions between the radicalizing masses and the Bolsheviks — who began winning large majorities in soviets all over Russia in the summer and fall of 1917 — revolutionized these councils. But this was a two-way street. As workers, soldiers, and peasants took radical political initiatives, they increasingly penetrated the Bolshevik party while being influenced in turn by party activists.

From this vantage point, we see that the Bolsheviks won because they quickly responded to the people’s demands, objectives, and moods. Workers made the Bolshevik party their organization, even as they directly collaborated with members of other parties. In Victor Serge’s words, the Bolsheviks were “great only in the measure that they incarnate the masses.”

By the end of September 1917, Bolshevik majorities in soviets across Russia meant that they could count on decisive support at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, scheduled to begin on October 25. A strong majority of workers and peasants would now support the insurrection.

The Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) had come to the same conclusion as the Bolsheviks and most of the soviets: they had to break with the propertied classes and the “enlightened middle classes.” Following the insurrection, they joined the Bolsheviks in the new coalition government.

To complete the picture of worker-peasant power, the Left SRs and the national peasant congress which they dominated decided to merge its executive committee with the Central and Executive Committee of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies (TsIK), confirming the alliance between workers and peasants behind the new government.

On October 22 — when the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet turned into a plebiscite on the insurrection — mass meetings filled every hall to capacity.

Trotsky, president of the Petrograd Soviet, directed the practical organization of the insurrection. John Reed (author of Ten Days That Shook the World) said the people around him seemed to be “in ecstasy.” Trotsky read a resolution stating that they were ready to fight for the workers and peasants to the last drop of their blood and asked who was in favor. The immense crowd raised their hands as a single person and kept their hands raised. As Serge recounted, Trotsky said:

“Let this vote be your oath. You swear to give all your strength … to support the soviet, which undertakes to win the revolution and give you land, bread and peace.” The crowd approved and took the oath. This scene was repeated all over Petrograd: thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. It was the insurrection.

The revolution itself, October 25, was anticlimactic and almost nonviolent, at least in Petrograd. Trotsky had once described revolution as a fight for the army — the side that gets the army wins. On this measure, the Bolsheviks triumphed. Whole garrisons supported the party and the revolution. Already on October 21, the Petrograd garrison recognized the soviet as its “supreme authority.”

As the Bolsheviks and their Red Guard marched to the Winter Palace, where the thirteen ministers of the Provisional Government were holed up, the crack battalion guarding the palace crossed over to the revolutionaries, as did the women’s battalion. The famous Kronstadt sailors on the cruiser Aurora began firing their guns — loaded with blanks! The Red Guards escorted the provisional government ministers out without reprisal or violence. At the Congress of the Soviets, Lenin took the rostrum and said, “We will proceed to construct the socialist order.”

The revolution in Petrograd was well organized and easily won. The Red Guards, whom Serge described as “simply workers with a gun slung over their shoulder,” consisted of disciplined women and young people, as well as men, often elected by factory committees and local organizations. In Moscow, the insurrection was less prepared and met with more resistance. The factory owners aggressively fought the workers, and the Moscow soviet hadn’t created Red Guards. Street fighting lasted six days, and several hundred died before the White Guard surrendered. As in Petrograd, the counterrevolutionary forces were freed and guaranteed safety.

October inaugurated a revolutionary society the likes of which have never been seen. However short lived, for a brief time another class was in power, organized collectively in profoundly democratic councils, and enacted the most radical program ever imagined. Far from dictating to the people, the Bolsheviks typically approved initiatives taken from below without any attempt to dilute or moderate them — and this gave them democratic legitimacy.

The days following the revolution brought the decree on land that expropriated the landlords and made peasants the masters of their holdings; the initiative for peace that concluded with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and Russia’s withdrawal from World War I; the Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia, which guaranteed equality, sovereignty, and the right of self-determination, including the right to form independent states, as Finland did; the abolition of religious privileges; free development for all national and ethnic minorities; and an appeal to the Islamic workers of Russia and the East:

From now on, your beliefs and your customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable. Go, organize your national life freely and without fetters.… [Y]ou must become the masters in your own countries.… Your destiny is in your hands.

Meanwhile, the new government put the armed people in charge of law and order, replacing the police and the standing army.

The first Soviet constitution drawn up by Yakov Sverdlov guaranteed every liberty to those who worked. To counter the myth that the Bolsheviks established a bureaucratic, totalitarian state from the outset, Serge remarked, “no one thought of fighting for a totalitarian state; men fought and died for a new kind of freedom.”

The new regime’s handling of the press exemplifies this freedom. The Bolsheviks wanted to wrest control of the press away from the bourgeoisie. Trotsky insisted that “every group of citizens should have printing presses and paper at his [their] disposal,” and Lenin put forth a proposal that every group of citizens supported by ten to fifteen thousand workers should have the right to issue a paper if it wished.

Factories were turned over to the worker soviets. The decree of November 14 invited workers to “use their own committees to control the production, accounting and financing of the firms they work in,” which made the occupations of workplaces the foundation for workers control. Workers demanded access to their companies’ secrets — “open the books” became their slogan — and they made former managers teach them the secrets of production. The eight-hour day was guaranteed the day after the insurrection.

A November 10 decree urged the municipal soviets to solve the housing crisis by “taking their own measures” with the right to “requisition, sequestrate and confiscate premises.” The new government canceled debts and nationalized banks, trusts, and cartels.

As John Reed put it, the so-called “Bolshevik conspiracy was literally carried into power by a colossal and rising wave of public sentiment.” The Soviet government worked rapidly to make good on the revolutionary demands and to extend democracy and control to the population throughout the former empire.

To that end, soviets confiscated the Putilov factories and the 1886 Electric Company and abolished commercial secrets; they enforced the eight-hour day on the railways and ended interest and dividend payments on bonds. They abolished the rank system in both the army and civil society, took education out of the church’s hands, and instituted civil marriage and divorce.

These radical measures were the creative beginnings of an entirely new form of democratic control.

The Constituent Assembly

After February, dual power reigned between the Provisional Government and the soviets. The Bolsheviks had long called for the election of a Constituent Assembly — a remarkable step at the time — but the Provisional Government, under pressure from the propertied classes, dreaded its results, so they kept postponing the vote.

October fundamentally altered Russia’s political conditions, but elections to the Constituent Assembly went ahead less than a month later.

Every party and class participated, albeit with diverse and mutually contradictory expectations. The SRs, with broad support from the peasantry, believed that they would win a majority in this new legislative body and become the governing party.

Unfortunately, the outdated electoral lists did not match the country’s post-revolutionary transformation. The SRs won the majority of votes with 58 percent, but their single list did not reflect the split between the SRs and Left SRs, who now supported the Bolshevik Party (which won 25 percent). The Mensheviks won just 4 percent, and the Kadets and other bourgeois parties won 13 percent. The results posed immediate challenges to both democracy and soviet power.

The Constituent Assembly had been the longstanding goal of the SRs and the Mensheviks, but, despite their majority, they couldn’t rescind the October Revolution, reject the soviets, or limit the Bolshevik role in the new government — such moves would in effect oppose the soviet power of workers and peasants.

The conundrum could not have been clearer: the Bolsheviks won leadership in the soviets democratically, and the Bolshevik program was the only one that could fulfill the revolutionary program of peace, land, and bread. The Constituent Assembly did not represent the revolutionary program: it was opposed to it.

For the Bolsheviks, the crisis was acute — they had won power but now might lose control. The rural areas had voted for the SRs, and the industrial cities voted Bolshevik. Lenin had assumed the proletariat in power would win over the peasants but wasn’t prepared for the SR majority in the Constituent Assembly to tip the balance against the revolution. He put forward his ideas in Pravda, counterposing soviet to parliamentary democracy:

The Constituent Assembly realized the highest form of democracy possible in a bourgeois republic, and therefore had its legitimate place in the program of Social-Democracy. However, the Soviets were a form of higher democracy, the only form ensuring an uninterrupted transition to Socialism.

Victor Serge described the tactic the Bolsheviks used to overcome this challenge. Sverdlov took Lenin’s Declaration of the Rights of the Laboring and Exploited Masses, prepared for the All Russian Soviet Executive, and proposed it to the Constituent Assembly.

The resolution unabashedly tied that body to the socialist revolution, calling on the assembly to:

[A]pprove the nationalization of the land, “distributed to the toilers without payment on the basis of equal access and use”; approve the Soviet laws on workers control of production … approve the nationalization of the banks; … [approve the] expropriation of the means of production and transport … and the total disarmament of the propertied classes.

It also defined the Constituent Assembly’s task as the general elaboration of the principles for a complete socialist transformation.

The SR majority refused to discuss the declaration, but they argued through the night until the proposal to dissolve the Constituent Assembly came out around 4 AM. The decree, released the night of January 6, 1918, stated, “bourgeois parliamentarism … is completely incompatible with the construction of socialism.”

Given the circumstances, they had few alternatives. Either the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs resigned and accepted the events to come — which would most likely have led to their own destruction — or they acted as they did in actual history, dissolving the Constituent Assembly with all the consequences.

Land to the Peasants

The decree on land that Lenin drew up on October 26 came from 242 decrees that peasant soviets had already passed, representing the Socialist Revolutionary agrarian program. Now the Bolsheviks put it into practice, supported by the Left SRs.

The decree’s first clause: “The Land-owners’ right of ownership over the soil is abolished forthwith without compensation.” Estates, including all the livestock, as well as church and monastic property now belonged to the peasant soviets. This declaration represented a high point of democracy, and it united the peasants around the soviets, which they now saw as an expression of mass power. It did not abolish private property, but it did expropriate landowners.

Like the decree on workers control, the decree on land endorsed initiatives already undertaken from below. At the time of the insurrection, peasants had occupied the large estates. The workers in government were completing the “bourgeois revolution” by giving the peasants property rights and freeing them from subjection. To do anything else — like nationalizing the soil — would have been undemocratic. Lenin commented:

As a democratic government, we cannot simply ignore the wishes of the popular masses, even if we are in disagreement with them.… In the development of new forms of government, we must follow the demands of life and leave complete freedom to the creative activity of the popular masses.… So the peasants want to solve the agrarian question themselves. Let there be no amendments to their plan!… [T]he main thing is for them to have the firm assurance that there will be no more landlords and that they can set about organizing their own lives.

But, if granting land to the peasants represents one of the greatest democratic victories of the new revolutionary government, it also constituted one of the biggest barriers to pushing the revolution further.

An overwhelming majority of peasants now saw their central demand realized. 80 to 90 percent of the population was now committed to defending the revolution because it had fulfilled their main class demand. At the same time, the seizure of land had conservative consequences. The overwhelming majority of rural people had become small landowners and would oppose collective property in agriculture.

Since small peasant plots couldn’t significantly increase agricultural productivity, soviet agriculture couldn’t produce the kind of surpluses needed to support the nation. But any attempt to adopt socialist modes of ownership would go against the majority’s interests.

The decision fettered the revolutionary government’s ability to move further left on a democratic basis. Aid from successful revolutions abroad became all the more critical.

War and Peace

As Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Trotsky took a delegation to negotiate Russia’s withdrawal from World War I in November 1917. The result was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, called by many the peace of shame because of the concessions the Bolsheviks accepted in order to withdraw.

The party divided over the negotiations. Lenin was willing to give up territory for peace; the Left Communists wanted to start a revolutionary war against Germany; and Trotsky advocated stalling, hoping to prolong negotiations in anticipation of a German workers’ revolt.

Lenin won the debate. Stalin remained silent throughout. The discussion was Bolshevism’s finest hour — they carried out a public debate on a contentious issue, democratically chose among three main positions, and came together to accept the decision.

Lenin prevailed because he based his arguments on what he called hard facts, rather than left sentiments. Countering his own party’s Left Communists and the Left SRs who dreamed of opening a new war with Germany, Lenin reminded them that the old army didn’t exist and the new one was just forming. Moreover, people were war weary, and the soldiers who left their posts to join the revolution could hardly be asked to return to the front for a new war. Lenin wasn’t overestimating German forces: he simply understood the state of the Russian ones.

Trotsky’s position, which many Bolsheviks shared, made sense. Extending the revolution to other countries was crucial to its survival, and the Western proletariat was looking to the Bolsheviks for leadership and assistance. Holding out, Trotsky thought, would strengthen the Western working class, who viewed a separate peace as a capitulation to German imperialism — not to mention an unnecessary continuation of the war on the Western front.

In no way did Lenin abandon world revolution. Instead, it remained the supreme goal of his policy. He saw the peace proposal as the spark that would ignite the German revolution, explaining, “I want to lose space in order to gain time.” His critics to the left warned against trying to preserve the revolution at any price because the economic policies cost the soviets their independence. Lenin responded: “We will perish without the German Revolution.”

There is no sugarcoating the disastrous terms of Brest-Litovsk. Russia lost Poland and the Baltic regions as well as huge tracts of Ukraine: 27 percent of its own sown area, 26 percent of its population — of which 40 was industrial proletariat— a third of its average crops (but 55 percent of its wheat), three-quarters of its iron and steel, and 26 percent of its railway network. There was another huge loss: the sacrifice of the Finnish Commune, which was drowned in blood in 1918.

Brest-Litovsk therefore foreshadowed a fundamental problem. The Bolsheviks needed peace in order to build a new revolutionary society at home — after all, the October revolution had been made in the name of peace! But, in ceasing hostilities with Germany, they relinquished what had been an even more essential goal: to openly assist the German workers in making their own revolution by weakening the army.

The assistance went both ways. The Bolsheviks needed the aid that would surely come from successful revolutions in the more developed west, principally Germany. They could not succeed on their own, isolated in power and the world, nor could they impose revolutionary change on other countries.

The Bolsheviks couldn’t force revolutions elsewhere, and their revolution couldn’t survive without more worker-run states. They could only assist world revolution by example, and that meant building the most radically democratic society, ruled from below by self-organized soviets that would stand as beacons to emulate for workers everywhere.

Self-Determination and Its Consequences

Just as making good on peace and land fulfilled the goals of the revolution while erecting barriers to further progress, the same can be said for the Bolshevik promise of self-determination. This commitment to democracy inspired the rest of the world, but, in Finland’s case, it also opened the door to counterrevolution.

Finland had been a largely autonomous part of the Russian empire since 1809, but following the October Revolution, the Finns pressed their claim for independence, citing the Bolshevik principle of self-determination. On December 18, the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars) adopted the resolution recognizing Finland’s national independence. Sadly, this decree granted freedom not to the Finnish workers but the bourgeoisie.

The Russian Revolution had polarized Finland, and independence highlighted the class divide. Lenin and Trotsky had hoped that Finnish workers would join them in revolution, as the first stop on the revolution’s westward path. Instead, the Finnish Social Democratic leadership de facto supported the Finnish bourgeoisie’s quest for independence and failed to make a revolution. The Soviets then had to recognize the Finnish bourgeois senate instead of a workers’ government.

The Finnish Social Democrats, formed in the German Social Democratic mold, had gained a majority in parliament in 1916. They voted in the eight-hour day and other social legislation, raising the possibility that socialism could be achieved through the ballot box.

But tensions mounted, and a highly political general strike was proclaimed on November 14, 1917, just weeks after the October Revolution, only miles away. The Social Democrats, fearing repression, took over the largest towns and the whole of southern Finland.

The party vacillated between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics. Following the example of the Bolsheviks, they introduced workers’ control over industry and took over the banks. Labor organizations formed workers’ Red Guards to defend their gains. Bloody clashes ensued.

Serge called it a revolution aborted, blaming the Finnish Social Democratic leaders for being indecisive. O. W. Kuusinen, one of the principal leaders of Finnish Social Democracy, would agree. As he later put it: “Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to maneuver round this turning-point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution.”

Finland had neither an army nor a police force, so the bourgeoisie formed civil guards sometimes known as fire brigades. General Gustaf Mannerheim, a former general of the Russian army took command of these forces, known as the Whites. With outside help — mainly from Germany — he crushed the Reds. The Whites aimed to free Finland from Russian power and defend the bourgeoisie from the increasingly radical labor movement.

For their part, the Social Democratic–led Reds had hoped for aid from their Bolshevik comrades, but it didn’t materialize. Though some Russians fought alongside the Finnish Reds, their numbers were small. To match Mannerheim’s forces, the Reds needed Soviet troops, but the latter had to withdraw under the terms of the Brest-Litovsk treaty.

Lenin promised rifles and cannons, but they didn’t arrive until after hostilities began. By honoring the Finns’ right of self-determination and their commitment to peace, the Bolsheviks sealed the fate of the Finnish revolution.

The 1918 war between the Reds and Whites was short and bloody. Mannerheim’s troops captured Helsinki in early April after a massacre killed mostly women and children. Fierce fighting broke out in Tampere on March 16 with the Whites finally taking the town Easter week.

Workers were rounded up and taken to concentration camps, where many were shot. Some eighty thousand Reds were sent to these camps, where hunger and disease killed twelve thousand people.

The terror that followed resulted in more than thirty thousand deaths, twenty-five thousand of which were Reds. The bloodbath, which Serge noted had only been matched by the Paris Commune massacre, killed one in four Finnish workers.

In his account of the tragedy in Year One, Serge made one final observation: the butcheries took place in April 1918. The Russian Revolution had, until that moment, treated its enemies leniently and had not resorted to terror. “The victorious bourgeoisie of a small nation which ranks among the most enlightened societies of Europe” had reminded the Russian proletariat “that woe to the vanquished! is the first law of social war.”

The defeat in Finland had multiple consequences for the Russian Revolution: self-determination prevented the Soviets from intervening to secure the victory of the Finnish Commune; the Bolsheviks could not help extend of the revolution to a Western capitalist country thanks to the Brest-Litovsk treaty; the savagery of the bourgeoisie demonstrated the high social cost for failed revolutions, forcing the Bolsheviks to abandon clemency and use terror to meet terror; and Finland presaged successive defeats in Germany, Hungary, and Poland.

As a consequence, the Bolshevik quest for the extension of the Russian Revolution turned eastward with the convening the Congress of the Oppressed Nationalities and Toilers of the East in Baku. The failed Bavarian, Baku, and Hungarian communes drove home the lessons of Finland.

In a critical sense, October 1917–April 1918 represented the revolution’s high point. These six months realized the socialist and democratic goals of workers, peasants, and soldiers to the utmost degree. But they also immediately set in motion complex developments that allowed the Bolsheviks to be isolated and caught in an unstable holding pattern throughout the 1920s.