On the Russian Revolution

Delegates to the First Conference of Factory Committees

The Russian Revolution is one of the clearest and most inspiring examples of the potential for workers to take power in world history, where the working class revolted and radically changed the social and economic relations upon which society was based. However, it also serves as a demonstration that the wrong strategy for revolutionary change can be deadly. While anarchists should applaud and recognise the significance of the revolutionary period, it is vital that we continue to critique, reflect upon and understand how a worker’s uprising against a monarchy morphed into the bureaucratic authoritarianism of Stalin’s regime. 

It is important to foreground an analysis of workerpower by distinguishing between worker control and worker self-management, in order to understand what truly represents a break from a class-based society and what fundamentally changing the relations of production entails. While control implies directing, administering, supervising or checking decisions made by others, self-management means ‘the total domination of the producer over the productive process’1, not simply partial oversight. As we know, the economic and social relations of production are the bedrock of any society. In class-based societies, producers are separated from the means of production and alienated from the products of their labour. Essentially, producers do not manage their own production process, but rather it is managed by another bureaucratic agency, whether that be the state or a private entity. Consequently, a system where producers i.e. workers are ‘subordinated to those who manage productive processes’2 is still a class based society. This distinction is important in the historical context of Tsarist Russia and the revolutionary period, because it illuminates that the Bolshevik conception of ‘taking power’ was an incomplete and perverse strategy which focused on wrestling political power from the bourgeoisie, rather than facilitating the autonomy of workers to take true power for themselves through self-management of workplaces and industry.

Throughout the revolutionary period, there were many forces preventing the Russian proletariat from taking power. These included bourgeois attempts to cling onto power, the sustained reformist opposition perpetrated by the Mensheviks, and the Bolshevik attitude to revolutionary strategy. While there were obviously material conditions which were not favourable to socialism in Russia at the time, the latter proved to be the most decisive element in the failure of the revolution for two main reasons: the separation of the party and the ensuing bureaucracy from the rest of the class, and the primarily political nature of the Bolsheviks’ attempt at taking power.

The Pre-revolutionary period

In pre-revolutionary Russia, the autocratic Tsarist regime was primarily feudal, with a burgeoning industrial capitalist economy in the process of development. This meant that swathes of peasants began migrating from the country to the city to participate in poorly waged factory labour during the early part of the century. Before the events of 1917, the workplace was a harsh place for factory workers. Long hours, poor wages, and a high rate of workplace injury and death led to mass discontent within the working class, which, combined with widespread opposition to Russia’s involvement in World War I, ultimately led to the beginnings of struggle against the regime— an articulation of the historical progression of the contradictions inherent to capitalist relations of production. 

In 1905, women started a riot over bread prices that spurred on strikes and occupations across the city, which were defeated only with significant effort from the monarchy. The Black Sea battleship Potemkin even mutinied and fired on officers at port, sailing to Romania to defect. Lenin rightfully described the revolts of 1905 as the practice run for the 1917 revolution, later taking up the slogan “peace, bread, land” in opposition to the Tsar. Russia was crippled by WWI and was hardly able to keep up the industrial production necessary to fight the Germans, socialists were highly organised within the conscript army, and conditions on the home and war front were horrible. These conditions subjected both peasants and workers to extreme exploitation, and, coupled with widespread discontent regarding Russia’s involvement in the war, formed the conditions for workers to begin to agitate against their overlords. 

In February of 1917 the Tsar was deposed and a bourgeois provincial government under Kerensky was put in place, with the socialists occupying a significant portion of the parliament. The bourgeoisie failed to end the war and instead launched a disastrous offensive. In October mass strikes broke out again, including the establishment of factory committees which deposed management and carried out the management of industry and production by workers themselves. However, immediately following the events of 1917, the Bolsheviks, aided by the power vacuum created by organisational problems in the factory committees, took advantage of the weakened government and seized executive control,  thus ultimately condemning the revolution to failure. 

Workers self-management in Factory Committees 

The factory committees in Russia were democratically run workers’ councils and were directly accountable to their industries and workplaces. Unlike the Soviets, which were eventually subsumed into the bureaucratic union structure run in a top-down fashion by Bolshevik party bureaucrats, they were based on principles of worker self-management. The factory committees were organisationally separate from the Soviets and bureaucratic unions dominated by the Bolshevik party as they were directly run by the workers on the shop floor, with the goal of managing their own productive forces. It was not the Soviet socialists or party members who took up the fight to win concessions and improve conditions in the factories, it was the efforts of workers who took collective control to demand changes to the way their workplaces and industries ran. The eight hour day, for example, was not delivered by state officials or union bureaucrats in the name of socialism, rather, it came about because workers in Moscow and Petrograd applied pressure from below to the Soviets, self-organised and simply refused to work more than eight hours at a time. This led to the Soviet leadership conceding to the workers’ demands, despite their position that it was too radical of an idea to adopt.

‘All power to the Soviets’, a term originally coined by anarchists, was assumed by the Bolshevik party who in practice rejected the notion of worker self-management. Despite their conviction and relentless efforts in seeking to overthrow the bourgeoisie, the seizing of political control by the Bolsheviks resulted in the factory committees being subsumed into a quasi state, and re-established authoritarian relations of production with bodies separate and above the proletariat tasked with managing production. The transitional political program of Trotsky and Lenin, dominant during the revolution, caused workplaces and industries that were controlled by the Soviets to be nationalised, rather than collectivised in a program of unmediated self-management by workers. This continued the capitalist relations of private property and preserved the wage system, essentially creating a bureaucratic state structure controlled by a novel class of professional revolutionaries who sought to quell dissent from workers in the name of protecting their ‘revolution’. 

But why did this occur? According to Pierre Broué, a French historian and Trotskyist revolutionary, ‘Those in the Bolshevik party who were the most favourable to the Soviets only saw in them, in the best of cases, auxiliaries for the party… only belatedly did the party discover the role it could play in the Soviets, and the interest that the Soviets presented for increasing the party’s influence with a view to leading the masses’3. The strategic outlook of the party as a distinctive entity to the Soviets was, ultimately, an expression of the internalisation of the very bourgeois way of thinking that the Bolsheviks were attempting to fight against. The concrete division of people into the social categories of ‘leaders’ and ‘led’ is a consistent hallmark of ruling class ideology throughout history. The cadre within the Bolshevik party saw themselves as leaders of the revolution; hence any movement which was initiated by others was an object of suspicion. The Bolshevik party faced political persecution, which was a feature of the specific historical circumstances of Russia at the time, and were forced to adopt a clandestine approach to organisation. However, while support for the party was at times widespread and genuinely felt by workers, leadership ended up falling into the hands of a minority of professional revolutionaries, who despite their working class origin ended up losing contact with the class as they were integrated into the party apparatus. Members of the Bolshevik party, who were ‘real living forces that provided the strength of the party’4 could not control it because it was not accountable to the majority in any meaningful or concrete way. This is highly indicative of the Bolshevik conception of the relationship between revolutionaries and workers; the vanguardist ideology of the Bolsheviks denied the agency of workers to carry out the task of revolutionary emancipation for themselves, and instead took an approach of leading from above, which resulted in the party leaders being disconnected from the workers movement at a grassroots level and instead oriented to obtain political power above all else. 

The failings of the Bolsheviks, combined with the weakened factory committees signalled the downfall of the revolution. The factory committees were a momentous achievement; they represented the highest form of class struggle and workers self-management throughout the revolutionary period. However, due to a lack of generalised consciousness, they failed to bring about the changes workers desired. The factory committees did not have clear and cohesive objectives or strategic direction, and they were therefore not able to comprehend or enact a path forward to revolution. This lack of self-consciousness and strategic orientation also meant that they failed to generalise struggle and only experienced fragmented gains5. The absence of such coordination led to a power vacuum that the Bolsheviks then capitalised on, which subsumed the factory committees into the ensuing bureaucracy and state centralised planning organs. 

This points to the need for a cohesive and genuine intervention into the factory committees along anti-hierarchical lines by organised workers with strategic and tactical unity, in order to provide direction and clarity to worker-led movements from the bottom up. As we know, the liberation and emancipation of the working class are the tasks of the workers themselves. We cannot substitute a revolutionary party, which organises the working class or directs struggle in certain ways, for the class itself. The Bolshevik party essentially undermined social and economic change in the name of political revolution, rather than social revolution. Leninism conceives the party seizing political power to direct social and economic change, but this change can only be substantiated by the working class themselves, and therefore it is their power and revolutionary capacity we should seek to build. The need for leadership in any revolutionary context is indisputable, but the modes in which this power is exercised is crucial to the end result. This is why anarchism advocates for militants to be embedded as workers in sites of struggle, building the social and economic conditions and institutions for self-governance through example and argument. The ideas of anarchist thinkers, which predicted the inherent problems of seizing state power decades earlier, were verified by the events of the Russian Revolution, as the Bolshevik party soon began to act in ways that cemented their power and sought to eliminate dissent. These methods can be observed in the state’s response to the Kronstadt workers’ rebellion in 1921 and the suppression of autonomously governed factory committees across Russia. Trotsky too supported the increasing dominance of a party managerial class over industry, including punishing workers who did not carry out the orders of the state. Trotsky, Lenin and the Bolshevik party seemed to be stuck in a transitional phase which provided no viable path to achieving full communism. 

The workers’ struggle, fuelled by mass uprisings and the dream of worker led governance, soon devolved into a centralised bureaucracy that developed separate interests to the working class and thus sought to quash uprisings they believed would threaten their power as a political class. The Bolshevik ‘transitional’ state morphed further and further into Stalinism, a centrally controlled state dictatorship which advocated for ‘socialism in one country’, with widespread repression of workers and revolutionaries who were not part of the party. Even before the civil war broke out, countless anarchists were killed and imprisoned by the Bolshevik secret police and many anarchist publications were forced to shut down, as worker control was progressively eroded by decree after decree. Lenin’s claim that ‘Socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people’6, was reflected in the historical progression of Bolshevism. The counter revolution was completed in 1921 with the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising, victory in the civil war, and the introduction of the New Economic Program (NEP). The wage system was officially endorsed; workers could have their wages docked or even be sacked for not following orders. The NEP led to unemployment, high prices, and low wages, which further served to discipline workers. While there was some opposition within the Bolsheviks, the move towards state capitalism in the USSR was now largely complete.

Bolshevism and vanguardism ultimately betrayed the Russian proletariat in favour of an organisational form which allowed a bureaucratic state apparatus to manage the economy, repress dissent, and maintain many of the capitalist economic and social structures that ordinary workers wanted to overthrow. Taking power means that ‘the vast majority of the working class realises its ability to manage both production and society, and organises itself to this end’7. When a specific group, separate from the workers themselves, has control over managing production, workers cannot truly take power; the separation of productive labour from the means of production results in a society that is exploitative to its core. The fundamental question is about who manages production after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, not just politically but socially. In Russia, workers did not succeed at taking power, in part because the management of the economy was taken over by some other bureaucratic force, facilitated by a flawed Bolshevik strategy that alienated them from the class at large. 

The Kronstadt Rebellion 

The events which occured in Kronstadt provide a prime example of how willing the Bolsheviks were to suppress grassroots worker activity in the name of preserving their political power. By 1921, the state bureaucracy of the Bolshevik party had significant control over the working class in Russia. Bosses were reinstated back into positions of power in factories, and the Bolsheviks assumed control of union bureaucracies. So, in March 1921, when the Konstadt worker rebellion put forward demands against state ownership and for direct worker control, the state bureaucracy was put in a bind between its socialist ideals and its material interest as a state apparatus.

A naval fortress in the Gulf of Finland, Kronstadt was traditionally a base of the Russian Baltic Fleet whose sailors had been at the forefront of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. In February 1921, a wave of peasant uprisings flooded Petrograd, due to the compounding fuel, railroad and food crises. Workers across Russia had become disenchanted with the Bolshevik government during WWI, the Russian Civil War in the years preceding, and the harsh measures implemented in the name of the war effort. Food shortages, grain requisitioning and a hugely decreased industrial output led to abject poverty, with masses of people on the brink of starvation, while the Bolshevik government became increasingly interested in preserving Russia as a nation able to survive in the capitalist world order.

With the long period of conflict from WWI to the Russian Civil War having ended, which was a significant drain on Russia’s resources, masses of people harboured expectations that the tight grip the Bolsheviks had on their lives would loosen, and material conditions would improve. This however did not occur, and soon the continued militarisation of labour, food shortages and harsh conditions were met with strikes across Petrograd, which in turn were met with calculated repression by the Bolsheviks. In response, a series of mass meetings were held at Kronstadt with sailors, Red Army soldiers, civilians and workers who were united with a common aim of rebelling against the absolutist control of the Bolshevik government, which they felt had failed at implementing the goals of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. This revolt, which was referenced as ‘the third revolution’, brought with it the hope of abolishing the Bolsheviks’ monopoly on power and delivering control of work and society back into the hands of the workers themselves, free from the yoke of the rapidly developing bureaucracy and trade union officialdom. While the Bolshevik government endorsed a bureaucratic approach to community and workplace organisation, as seen in their approach to factory committees, the people of Kronstadt sought to organise in a more grassroots manner. Throughout the rebellion, trade unions were re-elected in democratic elections, food rations were equalised. The Provisionary Revolutionary Committee was located in the centre of Kronstadt in order to be ‘in closer touch with the people and make access to the Committee easier than on the ship’8, which was a stark contrast to the appointment style of the Bolshevik leadership.

While initially the Bolshevik response to the non-violent revolution was limited, it was clear that it held a staunch stance against negotiation of any kind. There would be no conceding to the demands of the people, and following mass strikes, roadblocks and occupation, it became clear to the state that in order to successfully distinguish the burgeoning insurrection, a high level of force would be needed. 

The revolt ultimately failed. Met with Bolshevik repression and little support from comrades across Russia and internationally, the underprepared uprising stood no chance against the harsh response from the state. As Alexander Berkman noted, the state made ‘no concessions to the proletariat, while at the same time they were offering to compromise to the capitalists of Europe and America’9. It was clear that the Bolshevik government had transformed into a class which existed to preserve its own power, rather than to represent the will of the working class. On March 7th, the Red Army commandeered an attack on Kronstadt— the sailors who Trotsky had once deemed ‘the pride and glory of the Russian Revolution’ were now too large of a threat, and needed to be crushed. After spending days reorganising the armed forces, as many Red Army brigades refused to attack the Kronstadt fighters, large swathes of soldiers, brought in especially from further east in Russia, stormed the fortress, inducing a bloody massacre that left 10 000 people dead, an unknown number of rebels killed, and over 4 500 exported to Crimea and the Caucasus. On March 17th, the Kronstadt rebellion was defeated; the people they had once trusted to carry out the will of workers across Russia had brutally and successfully quashed a workers’ uprising, and with it the hopes and dreams for a revolutionary Russia. It was perhaps no surprise that mere months later Lenin formalised the re-implementation of a state capitalist economy in Russia through the NEP. As anarchists, it is obvious that this repression was inevitable. The power of state apparatus had ballooned, leaving behind the widespread support it had won through mass struggle and with that, became an entity that was now more concerned with protecting itself at any cost than enforcing the will of the working class. 

Implications for revolution 

The October Revolution in Russia was truly a momentous historical event. However, due to the opportunism of the Bolshevik party which led to the formation of a bureaucratic state apparatus distinct from the class, and the eventual repression of workers self-management in favour of seizing political control, it failed to bring about the liberation that so many ordinary workers desired. 

The revolution shows the absolute necessity of working class self-organisation, as opposed to a vanguardist approach. It shows the need for anti-statism in any revolutionary movement if it is to be truly a social revolution and not purely a political one, as states in whatever form they take will always reproduce class divisions. And finally, it shows the necessity for collectivisation rather than nationalisation of industries and workplaces through worker self-management, as opposed to simply winning control over them. Although the material realities of Russia such as famine and civil war affected the revolution’s success, the inevitable rise of Stalinism speaks to the ideological and fundamental organisational flaws in the Bolsheviks’ approach to revolution.

We should acknowledge that organised anarchists were not a significant factor in the Russian revolution and that this was a key determinant in its defeat. If we don’t organise, we lose, and statist ideas will become dominant within revolutionary movements. As anarchists, we know that the revolution will only occur through the effort and organisation of workers themselves— an organised group of anarchist militants must be embedded in struggle in order to influence the trajectory of the social mass along revolutionary and anti-hierarchical lines— to eventually become irrelevant when class consciousness reaches a point where workers have the tools to organise themselves through workers councils, federations and militias. The point of a social revolution is that it must come from below, unmediated by coercive power structures that can suck the life out of any genuine workers’ uprising. 

Further Reading

Maurice Brinton – The Bolsheviks and Workers Control

Ida Mett – The Kronstadt Uprising

Emma Goldman – The Persecution Of The Anarchists (from “My Disillusionment in Russia”)

Emma Goldman – There Is No Communism In Russia

Workers Solidarity Movement – How Lenin led to Stalin

Alexander Berkman – The Kronstadt Rebellion

Black Rose Federation – Red and Black October: An Anarchist Perspective on the Russian Revolution for its 100th Anniversary

  1. M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control (Solidarity, London 1970).
  2. Ibid.
  3. P. Broué, Histoire du Parti Bolshevik (Editions de Minuit, Paris 1963) p 35.
  4. M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control (Solidarity, London 1970).
  5. Ibid.
  6. V.I. Lenin, The threatening catastrophe and how to fight it (Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Library 1917).
  7. M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control (Solidarity, London 1970).
  8. Izvestia of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Kronstadt, No. 9, March 11, 1921.
  9. Alexander Berkman, The Kronstadt Rebellion (1922).