Petrograd, capital of Russia, on the night of 25 October 1917. With the First World War raging on the battlefields of Europe, the Russian Revolution has reached its deciding moment. Armed detachments of workers and soldiers, organised by the Bolshevik Party, have taken control in the city. The pro-capitalist Provisional Government, discredited and isolated, has ceased to exist.

In the Smolny Institute, formerly a girls’ school, the Congress of Soviets [elected councils] of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is in session.

Some delegates are professional politicians, left-wing intellectuals or radicalised army officers. But the vast majority are representatives of the ordinary working people: “great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants – poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence” (John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World) – but filled with a revolutionary vision of the future, and a passionate determination to end their oppression once and for all.

Middle class reformists denounce the Bolsheviks and demand that the congress break-up! But delegate after delegate of the workers, peasants and soldiers drown them in the will and inspiration of the masses rising to their feet.

A soldier captures the mood: “I tell you, the Lettish soldiers have many times said: ‘No more resolutions! No more talk! We want deeds – the power must be in our hands!’”

The hall, reports John Reed, “rocked with cheering…”

Amidst tumultuous applause, the Bolsheviks announce the transfer of state power to the soviets of the working people. A “Proclamation to workers, soldiers and peasants”, put forward by the Bolsheviks, is overwhelmingly adopted. It sums up the immediate tasks:

The Soviet authority will at once propose an immediate democratic peace to all nations, and an immediate truce on all fronts. It will assure the free transfer of landlord, crown and monastery lands to the Land Committees [elected by the peasants as instruments for seizing the landlords’ estates], defend the soldiers’ rights, enforcing a complete democratization of the Army, establish workers’ control over production, … take means to supply bread to the cities and articles of first necessity to the villages, and secure to all nationalities living in Russia a real right to independent existence.

The Congress resolves: that all local power shall be transferred to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, which must enforce revolutionary order.

Quoted by John Reed

Under a government of the revolutionary workers’ party, supported by the mass of the poor peasants, the Russian people were freeing themselves from centuries of enslavement. In doing so they were demolishing the conditions for the existence of the capitalist system.

Lenin addressed the Congress of the following evening. When eventually he could make himself heard above the thunderous applause, his first words were to confirm the task which the democratic revolution had placed on the agenda: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”

Throughout the long, hard years of struggle leading up to this night, Marxists had explained in theory what this task would involve. Now the Bolshevik leaders needed to explain it in practical terms.

Leon Trotsky, next to Lenin the most authoritative leader of the Russian Revolution, spoke later that same night:

We rest all our hope on the possibility that our revolution will unleash the European revolution. If the insurrectionary peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed… Either the Russian Revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution.

Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution

The delegates, wrote an observer, greeted these words “with an immense crusading acclaim”. Clearly, Lenin and Trotsky had expressed the thoughts and feelings of the vast majority of revolutionary fighters present in the Smolny that night.

Thus, in its very first hours, the new proletarian regime reasserted two fundamental propositions of Marxism – no longer as theoretical concepts but as the basis for state policy:

(a) democracy and a solution to the land question, in an underdeveloped country like Russia, is possible only under working class rule, bringing with it the overthrow of capitalism and the transition to socialism.

(b) socialist revolution cannot be confined within the borders of one country; it can only advance through the struggle to overthrow capitalism on a world-scale. The rest of this pamphlet will deal with the fate of the Russian Revolution over the following ten to twenty years, and the displacement of workers’ democracy by a monstrous bureaucratic dictatorship. From studying these developments carefully, lessons can be learned that will be of vital importance to the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism today, and the construction of healthy regimes of workers’ democracy in the next period.

Continue to Chapter Two