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The Rise of Communism in Russia
“Unless we accept the claim that Lenin?s coup d?tat gave birth to an
entirely new state, and indeed to a new era in the history of mankind, we must
recognize in today?s Soviet Union the old empire of the Russians — the only
empire that survived into the mid 1980’s” (Luttwak, 1).
In their Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
applied the term communism to a final stage of socialism in which all class
differences would disappear and humankind would live in harmony. Marx and
Engels claimed to have discovered a scientific approach to socialism based on
the laws of history. They declared that the course of history was determined
by the clash of opposing forces rooted in the economic system and the ownership
of property. Just as the feudal system had given way to capitalism, so in time
capitalism would give way to socialism. The class struggle of the future would
be between the bourgeoisie, who were the capitalist employers, and the
proletariat, who were the workers. The struggle would end, according to Marx,
in the socialist revolution and the attainment of full communism (Groiler’s
Socialism, of which “Marxism-Leninism” is a takeoff, originated in the
West. Designed in France and Germany, it was brought into Russia in the middle
of the nineteenth century and promptly attracted support among the country’s
educated, public-minded elite, who at that time were called intelligentsia
(Pipes, 21). After Revolution broke out over Europe in 1848 the modern working
class appeared on the scene as a major historical force. However, Russia
remained out of the changes that Europe was experiencing. As a socialist
movement and inclination, the Russian Social-Democratic Party continued the
traditions of all the Russian Revolutions of the past, with the goal of
conquering political freedom (Daniels 7).
As early as 1894, when he was twenty-four, Lenin had become a
revolutionary agitator and a convinced Marxist. He exhibited his new faith and
his polemical talents in a diatribe of that year against the peasant-oriented
socialism of the Populists led by N.K. Mikhiaiovsky (Wren, 3).
While Marxism had been winning adherents among the Russian
revolutionary intelligentsia for more than a decade previously, a claimed
Marxist party was bit organized until 1898. In that year a “congress” of nine
men met at Minsk to proclaim the establishment of the Russian Social Democratic
Worker’s Party. The Manifesto issued in the name of the congress after the
police broke it up was drawn up by the economist Peter Struve, a member of the
moderate “legal Marxist” group who soon afterward left the Marxist movement
altogether. The manifesto is indicative of the way Marxism was applied to
Russian conditions, and of the special role for the proletariat (Pipes, 11).
The first true congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party
was the Second. It convened in Brussels in the summer of 1903, but was forced
by the interference of the Belgian authorities to move to London, where the
proceedings were concluded. The Second Congress was the occasion for bitter
wrangling among the representatives of various Russian Marxist Factions, and
ended in a deep split that was mainly caused by Lenin — his personality, his
drive for power in the movement, and his “hard” philosophy of the disciplined
party organization. At the close of the congress Lenin commanded a temporary
majority for his faction and seized upon the label “Bolshevik” (Russian for
Majority), while his opponents who inclined to the “soft” or more democratic
position became known as the “Mensheviks” or minority (Daniels, 19).
Though born only in 1879, Trotsky had gained a leading place among the
Russian Social-Democrats by the time of the Second party Congress in 1903. He
represented ultra-radical sentiment that could not reconcile itself to Lenin’s
stress on the party organization. Trotsky stayed with the Menshevik faction
until he joined Lenin in 1917. From that point on, he acomidated himself in
large measure to Lenin’s philosophy of party dictatorship, but his reservations
came to the surface again in the years after his fall from power (Stoessinger,
In the months after the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Party
Lenin lost his majority and began organizing a rebellious group of Bolsheviks.
This was to be in opposition of the new majority of the congress, the
Menshiviks, led by Trotsky. Twenty-two Bolsheviks, including Lenin, met in
Geneva in August of 1904 to promote the idea of the highly disciplined party
and to urge the reorganization of the whole Social-Democratic movement on
Leninist lines (Stoessinger, 33).
The differences between Lenin and the Bogdanov group of revolutionary
romantics came to its peak in 1909. Lenin denounced the otzovists, also known
as the recallists, who wanted to recall the Bolshevik deputies in the Duma, and
the ultimatists who demanded that the deputies take a more radical stand –
both for their philosophical vagaries which he rejected as idealism, and for
the utopian purism of their refusal to take tactical advantage of the Duma.
The real issue was Lenin’s control of the faction and the enforcement of his
brand of Marxist orthodoxy. Lenin demonstrated his grip of the Bolshevik
faction at a meeting in Paris of the editors of the Bolsheviks’ factional paper,
which had become the headquarters of the faction. Bogdanov and his followers
were expelled from the Bolshevik faction, though they remained within the
Social-Democratic fold (Wren, 95).
On March 8 of 1917 a severe food shortage cause riots in Petrograd.
The crowds demanded food and the step down of Tsar. When the troops were
called in to disperse the crowds, they refused to fire their weapons and joined
in the rioting. The army generals reported that it would be pointless to send
in any more troops, because they would only join in with the other rioters.
The frustrated tsar responded by stepping down from power, ending the 300-year-
old Romanov dynasty (Farah, 580).
With the tsar out of power, a new provisional government took over made
up of middle-class Duma representatives. Also rising to power was a rival
government called the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies
consisting of workers and peasants of socialist and revolutionary groups.
Other soviets formed in towns and villages all across the country. All of the
soviets worked to push a three-point program which called for an immediate peas,
the transfer of land to peasants, and control of factories to workers. But the
provisional government stood in conflict with the other smaller governments and
the hardships of war hit the country. The provisional government was so busy
fighting the war that they neglected the social problems it faced, losing much
needed support (Farah, 580).
The Bolsheviks in Russia were confused and divided about how to regard
the Provisional Government, but most of them, including Stalin, were inclined
to accept it for the time being on condition that it work for an end to the war.
When Lenin reached Russia in April after his famous “sealed car” trip across
Germany, he quickly denounced his Bolshevik colleagues for failing to take a
sufficiently revolutionary stand (Daniels, 88).
In August of 1917, while Lenin was in hiding and the party had been
basically outlawed by the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks managed to
hold their first party congress since 1907 regardless. The most significant
part of the debate turned on the possibility for immediate revolutionary action
in Russia and the relation of this to the international upheaval. The
separation between the utopian internationalists and the more practical Russia-
oriented people was already apparent (Pipes, 127).
The Bolsheviks’ hope of seizing power was hardly secret. Bold refusal
of the provisional Government was one of their major ideals. Three weeks
before the revolt they decided to stage a demonstrative walkout from the
advisory assembly. When the walkout was staged, Trotsky denounced the
Provisional Government for its alleged counterrevolutionary objectives and
called on the people of Russia to support the Bolsheviks (Daniels, 110).
On October 10 of 1917, Lenin made the decision to take power. He came
secretly to Petrograd to try and disperse any hesitancies the Bolshevik
leadership had over his demand for armed revolt. Against the opposition of two
of Lenin’s long-time lieutenants, Zinovieiv and Kamenev, the Central Committee
accepted Lenin’s resolution which formally instructed the party organizations
to prepare for the seizure of power.
Finally, of October 25 the Bolshevik revolution took place to overthrow
the provisional government. They did so through the agency of the Military-
Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. They forcibly overthrew the
provisional government by taking over all of the government buildings, such as
the post office, and big corporations, such as the power companies, the
shipyard, the telephone company. The endorsement of the coup was secured from
the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was concurrently in session.
This was known as the “October Revolution” (Luttwak, 74) Through this, control
of Russia was shifted to Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
IN a quick series of decrees, the new “soviet” government instituted a
number of sweeping reforms, some long overdue and some quite revolutionary.
They ranged from “democratic” reforms, such as the disestablishment of the
church and equality for the national minorities, to the recognition of the
peasants’ land seizures and to openly socialist steps such as the
nationalization of banks. The Provisional Government’s commitment to the war
effort was denounced. Four decrees were put into action. The first four from
the Bolshevik Revolutionary Legislation were a decree on peace, a decree on
land, a decree on the suppression of hostile newspapers, and a declaration of
the rights of the peoples of Russia (Stossenger, 130).
By early 1918 the Bolshevik critics individually made their peace with
Lenin, and were accepted back into the party and governmental leadership. At
the same time, the Left and Soviet administration thus acquired the exclusively
Communist character which it has had ever since. The Left SR’s like the right
SR’s and the Mensheviks, continued to function in the soviets as a more or less
legal opposition until the outbreak of large-scale civil war in the middle of
1918. At that point the opposition parties took positions which were either
equally vocal or openly anti-Bolshevik, and one after another, they were
The Eastern Front had been relatively quiet during 1917, and shortly
after the Bolshevik Revolution a temporary armstice was agreed upon. Peace
negotiations were then begun at the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk, behind the
German lines. In agreement with their earlier anti-imperialist line, the
Bolshevik negotiators, headed by Trotsky, used the talks as a discussion for
revolutionary propaganda, while most of the party expected the eventual return
of war in the name of revolution. Lenin startled his followers in January of
1918 by explicitly demanding that the Soviet republic meet the German
conditions and conclude a formal peace in order to win what he regarded as an
indispensable “breathing spell,” instead of shallowly risking the future of the
revolution (Daniels, 135).
Trotsky resigned as Foreign Commissar during the Brest-Litovsk crisis,
but he was immediately appointed Commissar of Military Affairs and entrusted
with the creation of a new Red Army to replace the old Russian army which had
dissolved during the revolution. Many Communists wanted to new military force
to be built up on strictly revolutionary principles, with guerrilla tactics,
the election of officers, and the abolition of traditional discipline. Trotsky
set himself emphatically against this attitude and demanded an army organized
in the conventional way and employing “military specialists” — experienced
officers from the old army.
Hostilities between the Communists and the Whites, who were the groups
opposed to the Bolsheviks, reached a decicive climax in 1919. Intervention by
the allied powers on the side of the Whites almost brought them victory.
Facing the most serious White threat led by General Denikin in Southern Russia,
Lenin appealed to his followers for a supreme effort, and threatened ruthless
repression of any opposition behind the lines. By early 1920 the principal
White forces were defeated (Wren, 151). For three years the rivalry went on
with the Whites capturing areas and killing anyone suspected of Communist
practices. Even though the Whites had more soldiers in their army, they were
not nearly as organized nor as efficient as the Reds, and therefore were unable
to rise up (Farah, 582).
Police action by the Bolsheviks to combat political opposition
commenced with the creation of the “Cheka.” Under the direction of Felix
Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka became the prototype of totalitarian secret police
systems, enjoying at critical times the right the right of unlimited arrest and
summary execution of suspects and hostages. The principle of such police
surveillance over the political leanings of the Soviet population has remained
in effect ever since, despite the varying intensity of repression and the
organizational changes of the police — from Cheka to GPU (The State Political
Administration) to NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) to MVD
(Ministry of Internal Affairs) to the now well-known KGB (Committee for State
Security) (Pipes, 140).
Lenin used his secret police in his plans to use terror to achieve
his goals and as a political weapon against his enemies. Anyone opposed to the
communist state was arrested. Many socialists who had backed Lenin’s
revolution at first now had second thoughts. To escape punishment, they fled.
By 1921 Lenin had strengthened his control and the White armies and their
allies had been defeated (Farah, 582).
Communism had now been established and Russia had become a socialist
country. Russia was also given a new name: The Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics. This in theory meant that the means of production was in the hands
of the state. The state, in turn, would build the future, classless society.
But still, the power was in the hands of the party (Farah, 583). The next
decade was ruled by a collective dictatorship of the top party leaders. At the
top level individuals still spoke for themselves, and considerable freedom for
factional controversy remained despite the principles of unity laid down in
Daniels, Robert V., A Documentary History of Communism. New York:
Random House Publishing, 1960.
Farah, Mounir, The Human Experience. Columbus: Bell & Howess Co.,
Luttwak, Edward N., The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union. New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Pipes, Richard, Survival is Not Enough. New York: S&S Publishing,
Stoessinger, John G., Nations in Darkness. Boston: Howard Books,
Wren, Christopher S., The End of the Line. San Francisco:
Blackhawk Publishing, 1988.
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