The survival of the Russian workers’ state was made possible, in the first place, by the support of the working class internationally in the enormous movements following the October revolution.
Brilliantly confirming the Bolsheviks’ perspective, Europe was plunged into a period of revolution. The road to victory opened up before the working class in one country after another.
The imperialists, tied down by life-and-death struggles in their own countries, could not continue their attacks on Russia without provoking the workers even further, and driving their soldiers to mutiny.
A strike by Hungarian munitions workers in January 1918 spread like wildfire to Vienna, Berlin and throughout Germany, involving over two million workers. Their central demand, echoing the Russian workers’ demand, was peace. In Finland an Independent Workers’ Republic was proclaimed. After months of fighting it was crushed with the help of German troops.
Then, on 4 November 1918, mutiny broke out at the German naval base of Kiel, and ignited the German revolution. Within days every major city was in the hands of the workers’ councils.
The effect on the Russian working class was electrifying. The Bolshevik Ilyin-Shenevsky, taking an evening off in a Petrograd theatre, gives a glimpse of its impact throughout the country:
Before one of the acts was about to begin, a man in jacket and high boots came on to the stage and said: ‘Comrades! We have just had news from Germany. There has been a revolution in Germany. Wilhelm [the emperor] has been overthrown. A Soviet of workers’ deputies has been formed in Berlin and has sent us a telegram of greeting.’
It is hard to convey what followed… The announcement was met with a kind of roar, and frenzied applause shook the theatre for several minutes…The Bolsheviks in Power
In Austria, mass strikes and army mutinies finally smashed the imperial Hapsburg regime. The empire disintegrated, and in Hungary a revolutionary soviet government took power in March 1919.
France was swept by mass strikes and naval mutiny. British soldiers mutinied, and the Red Flag was hoisted over the Clyde in the Scottish industrial heartland. Ireland was in armed revolt against British rule. Strikes involving four million workers convulsed the USA in 1919.
These events, hardly mentioned in official history books, demonstrated a law which every socialist needs to understand: a successful workers’ revolution has an incalculable impact internationally, provoking capitalist reaction but, at the same time, inspiring the workers in other countries to come to its defence and follow its example.
The spirit of international solidarity was the Russian workers’ most potent weapon. Not by moral appeals to “democracy” or the “conscience” of the capitalist class, but by linking themselves to the working class struggle for power internationally, the Bolsheviks won immeasurable support from every corner of the globe, and opened a “second front” in the imperialists’ rear.
Addressed in a comradely way, British and American troops in Russia began to mutiny. On the Black Sea, French sailors hoisted the Red Flag. The imperialists were compelled to withdraw their forces and abandon the Whites to their fate.
The early congresses of the Communist International called on the workers’ movement internationally to take action against any kind of support for the Whites in Russia. In July 1920, following the invasion of Russia by reactionary Polish forces, the Second Congress appealed:
Stop all work, stop all transport, if you see that despite your protests the capitalist cliques of your countries are preparing a new intervention against Russia. Do not allow a single train, a single ship through to Poland.Quoted in J. Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943 – Documents, Volume 1
In Britain, the London dockers rallied magnificently to their comrades in Russia when they refused to load the vessel Jolly George with arms for the Whites in Poland.
In July, with the Red Army driving back the invaders, the British government threatened to send troops to Poland. Councils of action were set up by trade unionists throughout Britain, threatening a general strike if the intervention went ahead.
The British government – 48 hours after rejecting the Soviet reply to its ultimatum – backed down.
On the battlefields of Russia, as in the international arena, the workers’ victory was only made possible by the Bolsheviks’ uncompromising revolutionary policy.
A soldier, speaking at a mass meeting in Petrograd, makes clear the class program that the Red Army was built on:
The soldier says: ‘Show me what I am fighting for… Is it the democracy, or is it the capitalist plunderers? If you can prove to me that I am defending the Revolution, then I will go out and fight without capital punishment to force me’.
When the land belongs to the peasants and the factories to the workers and the power to the Soviets, then we’ll know we have something to fight for, and we’ll fight for it!John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World
A key factor in the struggle is leadership – in the first place, ideas and program; but following from this, the role of individuals in grasping those ideas, embodying the forward drive of their class, and showing others the way.
It would be impossible, for example, to deny the historic contribution of Marx and Engels in the development of the program of socialism, or of Lenin in preparing the way for the October revolution.
It would be equally impossible to underestimate Trotsky’s role as Commissar for War from 1918 to 1925 in building the Red Army and leading it to victory.
Trotsky organised the Red Army as a revolutionary army, motivated by political understanding, not by blind obedience. His unshakeable confidence in the workers, youth and peasants who made up its ranks is best expressed in his own words:
What was needed for [saving the revolution]? Very little. The front ranks of the masses had to realise the mortal danger in the situation. The first requisite for success was to hide nothing, our weaknesses least of all; not to trifle with the masses but to call everything by its right name.My Life
Dedicated young workers were attracted to the army, and became its vanguard. Trotsky continues:
The Soviets, the party, the trades unions, all devoted themselves to raising new detachments, and sent thousands of communists to the [front]. Most of the youth of the party did not know how to handle arms, but they had the will to win, and that was the most important thing. They put backbone into the soft body of the army.
The “will to win” was “the most important thing”. How to use arms can be learned in a short time. But the will to win can only be born out of a sense of purpose, a clear goal to fight for, and the understanding of how it can be achieved.
The Bolsheviks had the morale to win; and precisely this vital force was missing from the ranks of the Whites. Even the pro-capitalist Westwood is forced to admit:
Until Wrangel took over the remnants of the White Army [i.e., nearly at the end of the war], its officers set an example of drunkenness, looting and violence which their soldiers willingly followed. Outrageous treatment of the local population, the outspoken intention to restore the landlords, and the greater social cleavage between the Whites and the peasantry made the latter finally prefer the Reds.Russia 1917 to 1964
Thus the initial onslaught of the counter-revolution was defeated. The Bolsheviks, however, understood that their victory could bring no more than a respite in the struggle. As Lenin commented in 1920:
We have now passed from war to peace. But we have not forgotten that war will come again. So long as both capitalism and socialism remain, we cannot live in peace. Either the one or the other in the long run will conquer.Quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution