RUSSIAN REVOLUTION, World History, Notes for UPSC Exam, conditions for Russian revolution, War Communism, NEP, Pramesh Jain Blog
The Russian Revolution took place in 1917, during the final phase of World War I. It removed Russia from the war and brought about the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), replacing Russia’s traditional monarchy with the world’s first Communist state. The revolution happened in stages through two separate coups, one in February and one in October. The new government, led by Vladimir Lenin, could solidify its power only after three years of civil war, which ended in 1920.
Although the events of the Russian Revolution happened abruptly, the causes may be traced back nearly a century. The Russian Revolution of 1917 centers around two primary events: the February Revolution and the October Revolution.
Conditions for Revolution
First socialist revolution was made in ‘backward’ Russia, a society that was capitalist with strong remnants of feudal social and economic power intact, a working class still linked with land, and a peasantry that primarily aspired to individual land ownership. Essentially, it was the increasing contradictions of late and growing capitalism that created the social premises for the revolutionary outbreaks in Russia.
In Western Europe the growth of capitalism had led to the evolution of liberal- constitutionalism and parliamentary democracies. The Russian autocracy oppressed all the other nationalities of the Empire, and stood firmly against all democratic movements in Europe, earning for itself the label ‘Policeman of Europe’. The nature of the Russia state, therefore, became increasingly incompatible with the new demands that the new and changing social and economic forces engendered.
Serfdom was abolished in 1861. Even as peasant agriculture became commercialized and there emerged a ‘kulak’ rich peasant strata, the fundamental conflict in the countryside on the urgent questions of land, rents, wages and rights over commons remained that between the landed aristocracy, which still held the major portion of the land, and the peasantry as a whole. Expropriation of landed estates and land for the peasants was a demand that neither the Tsarist autocracy nor any other political group, except the Bolshevik, was prepared to endorse. At the same time, timing and nature of Russian industrialization also created scope for a workers movement that was both very militant and political.
Freedom from national oppression in the Tsarist Empire coincided with the victory of the socialist revolution. Apart from the alienation felt by the peoples of the Baltic region, Central Asia, Transcaucasia and other areas as a result of political and cultural discrimination, the economic backwardness that Tsarist economic policies entailed for these regions ensured that they remain predominantly agricultural with a strong stake in the land question.
The Bolsheviks supported land for the peasant as well as the right to secession and a voluntary union. The peasantry in these areas, therefore, played a crucial role in the victory of the socialist alternative to the tsarist autocracy, completely bypassing all liberal solutions to nationalist aspirations.
The Russian Revolution: In Stages
Lenin was the most important leader of the Bolshevik party. The Bolsheviks did not simply transfer Marxism to Russia. They found viable answers to their specific revolutionary problematic in Russia within the framework of Marxism. The ‘hegemony of the working class’ was necessary in the first bourgeois-democratic stage of the revolutionary, strategy was the ‘alliance of the working class and the peasantry’ in the context of a two stage revolution and the leading role of the working class, while transforming their strategy to bring them about.
The Russian Revolution may be said to have gone through three distinct stage and took almost twelve years to complete. The first stage led to the creation of a parliament, called the Duma. The second stage, known as the February revolution in 1917, led to the establishment of a Provisional Government at the centre though the rule of the tsar still prevailed. Finally, the Revolution completed its third and final stage in October 1917 when the rule of the tsar was overthrown and a peoples’ republic was established.
The first major assault on the autocracy occurred in 1905, sparked off by firing on a peaceful demonstration of workers on 9 January 1905. This day came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The workers and peasants began to demand a ‘democratic republic’. They also created the first soviets, grass-root, elected political organizations of workers, peasants and soldiers, which Lenin later called the ’embryos of revolutionary power’ and which eventually formed the basis of the post revolutionary state, and from which the socialist state derived its name USSR.
The February Revolution of 1917 began with a demonstration of women workers over shortage of bread in Petrograd. Later, it spread to other cities and to the countryside. Strikes by all sections of society, peasant uprisings, and revolutionary action by the soldiers sealed the fate of the autocracy. The Russian autocracy was overthrown and replaced by a provisional Government dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie.
The Revolution achieved political freedom for the first time. Fundamental and civil rights were created. New post-February revolution regime could not continue for long. The peasants were disappointed that they did not get any land, and the entire working people and soldiers were disappointed that the war still continued. The Bolsheviks easily emerged as closest to the popular mood with their slogans of: Land for the peasant, immediate end to war, Workers’ control over industries, Right of nationa-lities to self- determination, and above all Bread.
The early legislation aimed at destroying the legal and economic bases of capitalism and in laying the foundation for socialism. One of earliest measures was the abolition of private resources in industry, and the establishment of workers’ control. A second major intervention was in agriculture. By the Land Decree of November 1917 landlordism was abolished, and the entire land nationalized and given over to peasants for hereditary use under individual production. The land communities, the village gatherings and peasant soviets acted as autonomous organs of social and political transformation in the countryside. Within the space of a few years millions of acres of land changed hands and was divided among the peasants.
On 28 December 1917 all private banks were nationalized, and in February 1918 all shareholders in banks expropriated and all foreign debts repudiated. Within a few months of the revolution the government published all the secret treaties of the old government, and proclaimed that all treaties and agreements between Soviet Russia and other countries will be open and public.
By Decree on Peace, peace was offered without any annexations, conquests or indemnities. Govt. withdrew claims over areas; took a public stand against colonialism, and in support of all national liberation struggles.
Then, this entire process of revolutionary change was brought to a crisis by mid-1918. The revolutionary forces were confronted by Civil war in the form of armed hostility of the forces of the former landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, which merged with an equally determined armed intervention by the capitalist countries to dislodge the new socialist regime. The Bolsheviks responded in Jun 1918 with a series of economic and political measures that have subsequently been designated as War Communism. Loss of economically rich resource areas during war, and the emphasis on production for war effort and machinery to broaden the production base, led to decline in production of consumer goods.
The Soviet Government responded with forced requisition of grain surplus from the peasants in order to feed the urban poor and soldiers, and state control of all enterprises in order to revive industry. Nationalization of industrial enterprises was accelerated for maximum mobilization of resources. By a March 1918 decision the railways were taken away from ‘workers’ control and place under semi-military command. While the failure on the economic front led to peasant wars and urban disaffection, the growth of black market encouraged an ethos inimical to socialist ideals.
The spirit of voluntarism came under severe strain even as the ‘world socialist revolution’ in Europe failed to materialize. Recruitment for the Red Army became a problem. Workers opposition to the principle of sate control and the uprising of kronstadt sailors in February 1921 was the final straw after the wide spread peasant rebellions. Lenin was forced to announce that change of policy had become necessary.
The New Economic Policy (NEP) was a response to a political and economic crisis, though at its core were economic changes that marked a change in the strategy of transition to socialism. Grain requisition was replaced by a fixed tax. In 1924 the tax in kind was replaced by a money tax, followed by legalization of private trade. On 17 May 1921 the decree nationalizing small scale industry was revoked and smaller units were actually de-nationalized, some of them being restored to their former owners.
Just as War Communism had enabled the Bolsheviks to tide over the immediate difficulties and to consolidate the Revolution, the NEP (New Economic Policy) changes made possible economic recovery in the ensuing years and also won the confidence of the majority of peasants.
However, potential for conflict again between town and country, the peasant and working class remained in a long term sense. Reason was that private sector was predominant in agriculture throughout NEP, and a lot of industry was still a state monopoly. NEP changes could not resolve the problems and social contradictions that derived not merely from the war situation or specific polices but from the larger social contradictions that arise when the revolutionary working class is called upon to build socialism in the midst of a vast peasant majority.
The early socialist state heroically experimented with guaranteeing full employ- ment, free and equal education for all, free healthcare, equal access to culture and cultural advance, and equality for women.