The Russian Revolution was the most important revolution of the 20th century, and was one of the most important revolutions in the history of the world. I would place it as the third most important revolution after the American and French Revolutions. Like the American Revolution, and most other revolutions, the Russian Revolution was a revolution against economic oppression. In addition to this, the Russian Revolution started out as a revolution for democracy.
So, if the Russian Revolution started out being for democracy then what happened?
Basically Russia came into the 20th century as an extremely oppressed country that was ruled by the Czars. Russia was a feudal dictatorship. The people of Russia were horribly oppressed, poor, starving, cold, and without any real direction or hope. Essentially, Russia had never undergone the liberal revolutions that took place in Europe (starting with the French Revolution), which had established liberal democracy and capitalism there. Russia remained as one of the last vestiges of Medieval European society.
Through acts of “terrorism” and rebellion a small group of revolutionaries overthrew the Czars. Then Russia went into a stage of anarchy and turmoil, out of which the Bolshevik Party of Lenin emerged as the dominant political force.
Lenin and many of the Bolsheviks were not in Russia at the time of the Revolution. Some of them were from Russia originally but had left, while some were not from Russia at all. They were all Marxists and socialist revolutionaries that had been living in Europe studying science, economics, sociology, history, etc. from a Marxist perspective. The Bolsheviks did not cause the overthrow of the Russian government; they came in after the overthrow with the plan of putting Marxist revolutionary theory to practice. Their plan from the beginning was to develop Russia in such a way as to spread social revolution throughout Europe and eventually the world. The biggest political opponents of the Bolsheviks in Russia, aside from the Czars, were the Mensheviks and Social Democrats, both Marxist groups who also supported Socialism, but were less militant. What is important to understand about the Russian Revolution is that some of the biggest opponents to the Bolsheviks were other Communists. The "brand" of Communism that was promoted by the Bolsheviks was by no means representative of all Communist ideology. Bolshevik ideology was the least tolerant and most revolutionary form of Marxist ideology.
The Bolsheviks overthrew the remaining powers of the dictatorship in the October Revolution and began reforms by creating “Soviets”. Soviets were legislative assemblies of publicly elected officials that were to administer the activities of Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers.
The Constitution of the U.S.S.R.:
http://www. marxists. org/history/ussr/government/constitution/1918/index.htm
In addition to launching an attack on private property they did something else that upset countries around the world, and that was to make public all of the secret information that was contained in the Russian government files. They exposed all of the secret treaties that the Russian Czars had made with various countries as well as other information that the Russian government had acquired through its own intelligence operations. They did this because they felt that humanity should progress through honesty and they wanted to expose the corruption of other capitalists countries as well as of the old Russian regime.
These actions only added to the international opposition to the situation in Russia. After World War I was over 21 countries from all over the world, including America, began supporting a counter-revolution in Russia in an attempt to stop the Bolshevik revolution. At this time Russia entered a stage of Civil War between the Reds and the Whites.
The Red Army was headed the by Leon Trotsky of the Bolsheviks and the White Army was headed by the Czars and was supported by the international community. This conflict led to an increasing degree of stress on the Reds and caused the Reds to become more dictatorial and militant as a defensive measure. The path that they took during the Civil War was known as "War Communism. "
In 1918 American President Woodrow Wilson sent 12,000 American troops to Russia to fight on the side of the Czars against the Red Army. Interestingly, the American forces in Russia suffered more attacks and problems from the White Army than from the Red Army. The American commanders in the field reported that the Czarist reign of terror was far more horrific and disturbing that the actions of the Reds. The American forces also discovered that the vast majority of Russians sympathized with the Bolsheviks and supported the revolution. In the end, the American troops were brought home without any fanfare, and the ordeal was considered one of the most ill-conceived interventions in American history up to that time. Major General Graves, who lead the expedition, was accused of being a "Red sympathizer" and was generally disgraced after the event.
For more on this see:
http://www. ocnus. net/cgi-bin/exec/view. cgi?archive=38&num=9699
Two distinct views emerged from the Russian revolutionaries.
One was that Russia was incapable of undergoing a socialist revolution and that according to Marxist theory Russia would first have to establish a capitalist system to develop its economy. During the time that Russia was developing its capitalist economy it was intended that socialist revolutionaries should attempt to promote socialist revolution in developed countries, particularly in developed Europe such as France and Germany, and America as well, which would all be supported by the Russia government.
The opposing view to this was that a socialist state should be forced upon Russia and that Russia should lead the world by example in the matter of socialism. Stalin was a major supporter of this idea of "national socialism", which was contrary to the views of many of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky, two of the major figures in the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Marxist theory of socialism stated that socialism would not be possible to support in a single country, but that socialism required a global revolution so that all countries could work together through the use of shared resources and shared labor in order to provide enough goods to satisfy the demands of all people. The revolutionaries were genuine in their desire to attempt to bring about this condition, which is why they made certain that Russia was to have a strong policy against imperialism. They felt that in order for a true social revolution to take place it would have to be won through education of the people not through the force of war.
In 1918 Lenin was shot by a female Russian Socialist, Fanya Kaplan, who believed that Lenin had betrayed the Revolution and was not promoting Socialism.
In 1921 the Soviet Congress voted to institute a "New Economic Policy", known as the NEP. Lenin was highly influential in the development of the NEP, which was largely a concession to capitalists and property owners. The NEP allowed for the development of a free-market system and privatized production.
As Lenin’s health declined Stalin, as General Secretary, took increasing control over the party and at that time the democratic and open nature of the Russian system began to slip away. Stalin began removing his political opponents from the soviets and took on an authoritarian position. Lenin tried to get the cooperation of Leon Trotsky to oppose Stalin but it was too late, Stalin had already consolidated too much power. Prior to his death, Lenin not only warned against the leadership of Stalin, but he also urged that the Soviet system become more open and democratic.
Prior to his death Vladimir Lenin warned against Stalin's powers and urged that he be removed from his position. Lenin wrote:
I think that the fundamental factor in the matter of stability—from this point of view—is such members of the Central Committee as Stalin and Trotsky. The relation between them constitutes, in my opinion, a big half of the danger of that split, which might be avoided, and the avoidance of which might be promoted, in my opinion, by raising the number of members of the Central Committee to fifty or one hundred.
Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated an enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution. On the other hand, Comrade Trotsky, as was proved by his struggle against the Central Committee in connection with the question of the People’s Commissariat of Ways and Communications, is distinguished not only by his exceptional abilities—personally he is, to be sure, the most able man in the present Central Committee—but also by his too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.
These two qualities of the two most able leaders of the present Central Committee might, quite innocently, lead to a split; if our party does not take measures to prevent it, a split might arise unexpectedly.
- Lenin 1922
Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky it is not a [minor] detail, but it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.
- Lenin 1923
http://www. marxists. org/archive/trotsky/works/1926/1926-len.htm
In 1924 Lenin died of a stroke and these and other documents, known as Lenin's testament, were suppressed by Stalin as he took power.
Muscovites visiting Lenin's tomb
For more on Stalin and the evolution of the Soviet political system see:
http://lego70. tripod. com/ussr/cpsu_leaders.htm
In 1928 the first of Stalin's five-year plans went into effect. By 1930 the NEP was officially ended, and forced collectivization began. Under Stalin's leadership rapid industrialization took place. Although Stalin's rule was harsh, the industrialization that took place during the 1930s shocked the world and the living conditions of most Russians did improve.
In 1934, at the 17th Soviet Congress, there was a vote against Stalin's leadership. At the congressional sessions members voted for who they wanted to head the party by voting against who they did not want. Stalin received the most votes against him. However, Stalin had the loyalty of those who were counting the ballots and Stalin had the ballots against him destroyed. It was Sergei Kirov who actually won the election. Stalin then proceeded to have Kirov and most of the other 1300 members of the 17th congress (who were all Communists) murdered.
After Stalin took power most of the Marxist revolutionaries were either imprisoned in Siberia, executed, exiled, or they fled the country. Many of the socialist revolutionaries that fled Russia when Stalin took power traveled to other countries and organized Communist political parties in an effort to spread social revolution. Stalin eventually had Leon Trotsky assassinated while Trotsky was in hiding in Mexico.
All of this is why Stalin is considered by many to be a traitor to the Socialist Revolution. Most Marxists argue that the actions of Stalin in no way reflected the ideals of Marxism, Leninism, or Communism.
Though Stalin was not considered to be a particularly strong thinker in terms of Marxist ideology, he was a very intelligent man in the more traditional sense. He knew how to accomplish his goals and he proved to be a competent military strategist. He was, however, a brutal tyrant. Despite all of this, many less informed Socialists and Communists around the world at the time were unaware of the details of the Stalinist situation and continued to support Russia as a role model for Socialism not knowing of Stalin's actions. The only people really aware of all of the details of this at the time were the high level members of the Bolshevik Party. This is not to say that Stalin did not have an understanding of Marxism or that he was not a student of Marxism, he was. Stalin had a firm grasp of the principles of Marxism, but his actions were strongly opposed by other Marxists as not representative of the path of Socialism. In fact, many anti-Communists in Western society initially praised Stalin's rise to power because they saw him as far less of a real revolutionary than Leon Trotsky. For example, in the conservative and strongly anti-Marxist publication The Dearborn Independent, Stalin's assumption of power in Russia was proclaimed as a victory for the Russian people, as seen below:
There is also the matter of religion in relation to the Russian Revolution. If you read the Russian Constitution of 1918 you will notice that religious liberty is distinctly protected by the Constitution. Where then does all this talk about Communism and atheism come from?
Many of the Russian revolutionaries were atheists, as was Karl Marx, but religious tolerance was felt to be important by most of the revolutionaries.
During the Russian Revolution, much like the French Revolution, the churches and clergy sided with the Czars of Russia. This is because there was an established relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Czars, much like there was a relationship between the Catholic Church and the French Crown prior to the French Revolution. Because of this, the church was opposing the revolution and working against the peasants and oppressed masses in their struggle to better their own condition.
Out of this grew a backlash against religious leaders during the revolution. However, once Stalin came to power and had stabilized the country he began to promote the growth of the Russian Orthodox Church, but he opposed all other forms of religion and only allowed existence of the Russian Orthodox Church to support Russian nationalism.
For more on religion in revolutionary Russia see:
http://www. marxists. org/archive/lenin/works/1905/dec/03.htm
http://www. newyouth. com/archives/classics/luxemburg/socialismandthechurches.html
The Russian Revolution also has to be viewed in light of Russia's own national history. In other words, the Russian Revolution, and the developments thereafter, cannot be viewed only as a product of Communist Revolution, but they also have to be viewed as a product of the social history of Russia, which was itself very brutal and oppressive. The Russian revolution was a reaction to the abuses and terror that was waged against the population by the Czars, a reaction to the horrible conditions of World War I, in which over a million Russians lost their lives, and a reaction to a country that had no stability or history of progressive development. Stalin's actions, which were deplorable and denounced by virtually all Communists both before his takeover and after his death, were actually not that different from the actions of many of Russia's other leaders. Russia has one of the most brutal histories of any country in the world, and that history was very much a part of the nature of the Russian Revolution and the development of Stalinism as well.
I can only afford to give a brief overview of the Russian Revolution here, but I strongly encourage anyone who is not familiar with the Russian Revolution to learn more about it.
These are some excellent internet resources on the Russian Revolution:
International Socialism or State Capitalism?:
http://www. anu. edu. au/polsci/marx/contemp/pamsetc/socfrombel/sfb_6.htm
http://www. spartacus. schoolnet. co. uk/RUSmensheviks.htm
Revelations from the Russian Archives:
http://lcweb. loc. gov/exhibits/archives/intro.html
For an excellent insiders view of the revolution see Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution:
http://www. marxists. org/archive/trotsky/works/1930-hrr/index.htm
An in depth look at many aspects of the Russian Revolution and Russian History:
http://www. spartacus. schoolnet. co. uk/Russia.htm
A look at the October Revolution:
http://www. marxists. org/history/ussr/revolution/index.htm
Lenin and Trotsky – What they really stood for
http://www. marxist. com/LeninAndTrotsky/index.html
Marxists. org is a massive archive of many important communist documents from Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky:
http://www. marxists. org/
http://www. marxists. org/archive/trotsky/works/1936-rev/index.htm