The revolution of october 1917
Was the triumph of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 an expression of the will of the Russian masses or the product of manipulation of an unstable situation by an elite group of revolutionaries?
The revolution of October 1917 was one that can be clearly viewed in very different ways. The Bolsheviks would claim that they represented the will of the people and had to take power from the crumbling and weak provisional government. However there is a contradictory view that the Bolsheviks were nothing more than an elite group of revolutionaries who had manipulated the system and the people to take over Russia. Both these arguments have their merits. Arguably the Bolsheviks did, by October 1917, represent a large proportion of the working class and peasants. The Bolsheviks were in control of some of the soviets and therefore could claim some legitimacy. However the rise of the Bolshevik party cannot be purely accredited to the party, some of the responsibility is due to the failings of the provisional government and the other leading parties. The provisional government carried on the war which was seen as reckless, due to the armies' inadequacies and the majority of the people supporting withdrawal. If the provisional government had acted and reformed to appease the peasants then the Bolsheviks would have found it far more difficult to attack them, perhaps resulting in democratic elections rather than a second revolution. There was undoubtedly discontent among the Russian masses; this was aggravated by the Bolsheviks and their promise to meet the demands of the masses. This may show that the elite group of Bolsheviks were indeed manipulating the masses by offering false promises, which might or might not be achieved but would result in the Bolsheviks taking power. The masses still were not truly behind the Bolsheviks but it was clear that there was a need for decisive action which was offered by the Bolsheviks. There are still several interpretations of the October revolution, this depends on the authors own opinion. There is the liberal view, stating that the October revolution was political opportunism. Soviets have a different interpretation that the October revolution was an inevitable event. Whereas the revisionist would argue that the revolution was a revolution from below but that the Bolsheviks had a key role. Overall there would appear to be a compromise between the two ideas. The Russian masses were responding to the failure of the provisional government however the Bolsheviks still used the masses to establish themselves as the dominant power.
The view that the Bolsheviks were supported by the Russian masses is compelling. This is shown my Suny who states that ‘August 31, the Bolsheviks won an absolute majority in the Petrograd soviet for the first time' (page 51 suny). This implies that around this time the Bolsheviks were manoeuvring themselves into a position where they could take power. This is further shown by the Bolsheviks becoming the most popular party in the Moscow soviet. Furthermore Suny goes on to argue that there were four possible options and that there was inevitably going to be a change in the government of Russia. The last of these four and possibly the most unwanted was a Bolshevik lead country. However throughout the month of September the Bolsheviks were increasing their political power and popularity with the masses. The Bolsheviks continued with their slogans ‘power to the soviet' and this appealed to the masses because they believed that the Bolsheviks would make drastic changes. However this appeal is only increasing due to the inadequacies of the provisional government who continued to fight in a war they were obviously losing and did nothing to change the land issue. The liberal would blame Kerensky as well because he showed a lack of firmness when dealing with the Bolsheviks. Arguably is he had been firmer with the Bolsheviks they would not have been able to spread their message as easily and successfully. There was blame put on the moderate socialists and liberal, the liberal interpretation would suggest that their political failings allowed the Bolsheviks to prosper. The liberal interpretation does seem to be flawed mainly due to the fact that they believe that the coup was only the work of a conspiratorial minority and that the mass support they seem to have received was only an illusion. However this would appear to be incorrect the Bolsheviks had at least some support in the main soviets and over the months of September and October they strengthen their position so that they could take over power. The liberals claim the October revolution as an act of political opportunism but it remains that the Bolsheviks had been increasing in popularity even if they did rely on a small elite group to carry out the important tasks of the revolution. Therefore it seems that the Bolsheviks were only trying to represent the Russian masses.
The soviets would argue a different case; they would not put the revolution down to political opportunism but as an inevitable event. Acton describes the revolution for soviets by stating ‘the October revolution is the greatest event in history'. Acton Lenin had altered Marx so that he could justify the way the revolution would happen. Lenin firmly believed and was able to convince the Bolshevik central committee that it was time for the revolution and argued that the people were ready for any such event. Therefore the soviet view supports the idea that the Russian masses were on the side of the Bolsheviks and that the people wanted a new revolution and change. This is supported by the fact that there was little or no opposition to the revolution. For example the storming of the winter place lost fewer lives than the recorded re-enactment used for propaganda. This event implies that the Bolsheviks were favoured by the Russian masses. Although this favouritism could have been due to the lack of opposition parties or a lack of political knowledge by the masses. The masses could easily have been taken in by the Bolsheviks slogans, like the April thesis and the July day events. Furthermore the lack of opposition during the revolution could easily have been down to the elite group who targeted key places so that opposition would be limited. Without the elite revolutionaries it is likely that the revolution would have been more eventful as opposition might have been able to join together. Had the other political parties like the Mensheviks and the SRs been able to co-operate or at least work against the Bolshevik it would have been unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have had any mass support. Lenin knew that there was a weakness in Russia as he described Russia as the weakest link in the capitalist chain, which in all aspects it would appear a factual statement. Lenin was so committed to the Bolsheviks and there revolution that it was almost inevitable that there would be a Bolshevik lead revolution but this was only made easier by the tensions between the masses and the provisional government.
The third interpretation of the revolution comes from the revisionists, who had access to soviet files that were previously unavailable untold the 1980/90s. The revisionists believe that the revolution was one that only occurred due to the masses being completely discontented by the provisional government and wanted some kind of change. They would argue that the revolution was a revolution from below and that the masses truly wanted change. Therefore the revisionists would believe that the revolution was an expression of the Russian masses not the elite group of Bolsheviks. The economic failure of the provisional government is probably the key reason. If the people had been able to keep their jobs and food had been abundant then there would have been no mass hatred of the provisional government. The revisionists would argue that the masses were not blindly following the Bolsheviks but were inspired that there could be change and an increase in living standards. This is shown by the uprisings in the country where the Bolsheviks had very little influence so cannot possibly claim they were inspiring the uprisings. These uprisings were an expression of the peasant's hatred of their current living conditions due to the decisions of the provisional government. However the revisionist would not deny that the Bolsheviks played a role in the revolution. They were responding to popular aspirations and were able to use these to ensure the revolution occurred. The Bolsheviks arguably were what the masses needed to inspire action although in the end the Bolsheviks didn't need the support of the masses to complete the revolution. Overall the revisionists believe that the revolution was an expression of the Russian masses but that the Bolsheviks had played a role.
The revolution however can be seen as the manipulation of the situation by an elite group of revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks were in effect a minority party that had a small elite core that was committed to revolution at any cost. Lenin was undoubtedly the driving force behind this and was willing to manipulate the events to ensure that the revolution could take place. He was able to convince his fellow Bolsheviks that the time was right for revolution even though some did not agree with him. The Bolsheviks may have had control over some of the soviets but lacked real support with the masses. The masses were often ignorant of politics but knew that their living standards were poor. This could explain why the Bolsheviks faced so little opposition as the masses thought they could improve the standard of living for them and anything was surely better than the provisional government. The Bolshevik promises of ‘land, bread and peace' in the April thesis would have greatly appealed to the majority of Russians. This combined with the Kornilov affair, a right wing coup, made it easier for the Bolsheviks to assert their power despite not necessarily having the support of the Russian masses. The uprisings in the country were another event that could be manipulated because the Bolsheviks could use it as a reason to suggest that the people wanted change and that the Bolsheviks were the right party to lead Russia forward.