Lenin’s Leadership in the October Revolution
by Brendan Tam
It is difficult to assess revolutions without discussing the significance of their leaders, as often it is these leaders who determine the revolution’s fate. The 1917 October Revolution occasioned a dramatic transformation of the Russian state, removing the Provisional Government that had succeeded the Tsarist regime in February. It exerted global ramifications too, as it installed the first socialist regime in the world to power. The lifting of Soviet censorship in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in a clearer narrative being available, one that allows for a more complete picture when considering what occurred during the decisive years of the revolution. The Revolution’s leadership – especially Vladimir Lenin – played an integral role in these successes. Despite continued debate within the wider historiography of whether the revolution was inevitable or not, it is clear Lenin imposed himself upon events as they occurred and adeptly shaped them. While the collapse of Tsarism in February was unexpected and due to a loss of confidence from the military and aristocracy, the events of October constituted a concerted seizure of power. Four defining attributes of Lenin can be identified that aid in explaining his unprecedented success. These are: (i) Lenin’s foresight as a revolutionary theorist; (ii) Lenin’s innate drive and ambition; (iii) His decisiveness and adaptability; (iv) His ability to harness the support of the proletariat. Thus Lenin successfully laid the groundwork in 1917 for the ultimate and continued Bolshevik control of Russia.
The Provisional Government established in the aftermath of the fall of the tsarist state was weak and fraught with crises. This was a product of its origins. Popular unrest and dissatisfaction resulted in mass demonstrations and military mutinies and culminated in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917. The vacuum created was filled by two political entities: The Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet. The liberal Cadet Party initially held a majority in the Provisional Government as the government consisted of many former Duma members, which had dissolved itself in the aftermath of Nicholas II’s abdication. In comparison, the Petrograd Soviet consisted of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies with an executive committee where Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) held a majority presence, with a minority presence of Bolsheviks who enjoyed minimal support at this stage. These two institutions had an interim agreement to jointly govern Russia as ‘dual powers’ until a Constituent Assembly was summoned to draft a new democratic constitution. The dynamic between the two was precarious at best, as the Provisional Government held no popular mandate while the Soviet viewed its primary role as holding the government to account. As the Provisional Government began to lose popular support with its existence threatened by events including the July Days (public demonstrations against the government that were forcibly dispersed), and the aborted military coup of the Kornilov affair in August, the socialist parties that then controlled the Soviets (the Mensheviks and SRs) took up an increasingly active role in the ailing Provisional Government. As a result, these parties ceded their autonomy and impartiality, tying their fate to that of the Provisional Government. Lenin’s socialist faction, the Bolshevik Party, who from the outset had refused to collaborate with the government, were strategically placed to exploit the eventual collapse of the Dual Power arrangement.
Lenin’s Foresight as a Revolutionary Theorist:
Lenin first and foremost was a rule breaker. He eschewed classical Marxist theories of revolution, refusing to believe that Russia should undergo a period of democratic government before a proletariat-ruled one could be instituted. Lenin showed remarkable foresight in understanding the requirements that needed to be met to achieve a successful revolution when compared to his contemporaries. Unlike them, Lenin believed that the lessons of Marx and Engels had been distorted. He primarily blamed figures such as Karl Kautsky, who was considered a leader of the Second International, for the “doctoring of Marxism” and the removal of its “revolutionary soul.” Thus, he disagreed with what he termed the “petty-bourgeois theory” of the Mensheviks, SRs and even fellow Bolsheviks who believed that bourgeois stage of the revolution had to occur before the proletariat could seize control of the state. Without his ideological leadership, the Bolsheviks, like their rival socialists, would have been split and indecisive. They would have supported the Provisional Government, waiting for the natural progression of the Marxist defined periods of class dominance to eventually provide the working class with their moment to finally launch a revolution of the Proletariat after the revolution of the bourgeois had played out. Prior to the return of Lenin in April, leading Bolsheviks such as Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev believed the orthodox Russian Marxist interpretation, arguing that it was their role to offer conditional support to the Provisional Government as long as policies conducive to the interests of the proletariat were pursued. Instead, Lenin fully believed that conditions in Russia did not fully adhere to the traditional theory and that due to the brutal authoritarianism of the Tsarist regime over the country side, conditions were ripe for a proletariat revolution. Indeed, it is clear that he believed that such conditions on a whole applied globally. Lenin thought that Russia would act as a revolutionary vanguard, inspiring similar revolutions across the globe. Such a view is illustrated in his belief that Bolshevik Russia had little need to focus on foreign policy in the aftermath of seizing power.
Lenin’s Drive and Ambition
Lenin’s return to Russia on 3 April 1917 signalled what proved a vital turning point in the fate of the Provisional Government. It was Lenin’s ambition which ensured that the Bolsheviks remained the only political organisation untainted by the failings of the Provisional Government. This is supported by the fact that in the early days of the government leading Bolsheviks such as Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev (both central committee members) favoured supporting the Dual Power arrangement. Lenin’s return was vital in reorienting the Bolsheviks’ stance and ensuring that they maintained a unified viewpoint fuelled by the belief that seizing power and ruling in their own right was possible. As late as October 1917, leading Bolsheviks such as Grigory Zinoviev (another central committee member) and Kamenev were publically lambasting Lenin’s position of supporting an imminent Bolshevik seizure of power, arguing that it was not the time for insurrection. Despite such opposition from the upper echelons of his own party, Lenin remained the dominant figure, key decision maker and driver of the party. This is due to the majority of the Bolshevik rank and file membership having idolising Lenin since their early days as an underground revolutionary organisation.
This ability to retain support reveals the attractiveness of Lenin’s unwavering drive to achieve a proletariat support. He understood that the Bolshevik’s vision highlighted by their refusal to serve the Provisional Government could be harnessed to galvanise support for the Bolsheviks. Over the course of 1917, the Bolsheviks were transformed from a fringe political party that only had a hundred delegates out of the thousand at the First Congress of Soviets in June 1917, to one which held a majority in October during the Second Congress. The reality that it was Lenin who was the key driver in such a groundswell of support was revealed when Lenin was forced into hiding due to the Government persecution of the Bolsheviks after the July Days. Moderation began to prevail within the Bolsheviks, with calls from the Bolshevik Central Committee that they should finally join the other socialist groupings in the Provisional Government. Similarly, Bukharin stated that the Central Committee were “aghast” after receiving a letter from Lenin in September urging that it was time to seize power (Rabinowitch, 2004). Thus it was Lenin’s continued ambition and ultimate goal of a proletariat revolution that kept the Bolsheviks in a position to exploit the crumbling authority of the Provisional Government as the World War continued to go against Russia.
Lenin’s Decisiveness and Adaptability:
Lenin’s decisiveness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances was vital in shaping the events of the October Revolution. This decisiveness set the Bolsheviks clearly apart from their rivals. Lenin’s decisive leadership was notable as none of these rival socialist organisations had a clear leader. In the words of Alexander Potresov, who had been acquainted with Lenin since 1894, “only Lenin was followed unquestioningly as the indisputable leader” (Valentinov, 1968). The absence of comparable leaders resulted in destabilising factionalism and a lack of cohesion amongst the Mensheviks and SRs. The drive and ambition of Lenin was vital, as it gave the Bolsheviks the audacity to believe that they could govern alone. Such a belief was met with derision when Lenin answered that there was ‘such a party’ in response to the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli stating that there existed no party ready to govern on their own.
It is possible to use the July Days as a counterpoint to the notion of Lenin’s decisiveness. As historians such as James White note, Lenin was caught unprepared by the spontaneous risings of workers and soldiers during the July Days, as he was outside of Petrograd when the outbreak first commenced. While it appears that Lenin sat idle and allowed an opportunity for revolution to pass, he was ultimately a strategic planner. He and the Bolsheviks were not ready to seize power as Lenin did not support spontaneous revolution. They had yet to gain a majority in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, which they would achieve in the coming months, and the SRs and Mensheviks still held popular support as their influence grew within the Provisional Government.
Lenin would only advocate for the seizure of power when the outcome would be favourable. Such a stance is revealed in the letter he penned to the Central Committee of Bolsheviks on October 24 that stated, “History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious.” As the Provisional Government continued to struggle and the war continued unabated, soldiers and workers joined the Bolsheviks in great numbers. This trend was hastened by General Kornilov’s attempted coup d’etat (August 27-30, 1917) that severely undermined the leadership of Kerensky, the chairman of the Provisional Government. Kerensky himself stated that the attempted coup was exploited by the Bolsheviks to destroy the confidence the rank and file soldiers had in the government. Such tactics for increasing Bolshevik support validate Lenin’s foresight of refusing to call for the seizure of power in July. For when the Bolsheviks decisively struck in October, they had enough widespread popular support to maintain power and ensure the long-term survivability of the revolution. The careful planning and clear decision to execute the seizure of power lends credence to the arguments of historians such as Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes, who view the Russian Revolution as a revolution from above, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks playing a key deciding role in the eventual outcome.
Lenin’s Harnessing of the Support of the Proletariat:
The April Theses, which was comprised of the ambition pledges made by Lenin (such as no compromise with the Provisional Government), and an ambitious land redistribution plan proved a vital element in the Bolshevik’s appeals to gaining mainstream support from the working class. Unlike the leaders of the Mensheviks and the SRs, the slogan ‘peace, land, bread’, which was at the heart of the theses, appealed to many Russians as it provided answers to the prevalent issues facing Russia at the time. The success of such a stance is illustrated by the marked increase in membership of the Bolsheviks. The organisation grew from 24,000 members in February to 350,000 members in October. This rallying cry contrasted with the SRs and Mensheviks, as their decision of offering continued support to the Provisional Government – to the extent of entering it as Ministers when it was on the brink of collapse – inextricably linked the leadership of the Mensheviks and the SRs to the government in the eyes of the masses. This fits into Sheila Fitzpatrick’s view that it was primarily a movement of the masses that elicited the downfall of the Tsarist regime and was fated to repeat the result with the Provisional Government.
The Bolsheviks inherited a Russia on the brink of collapse, waging a costly war against the German Empire together with extreme levels of civil unrest. Unlike other Russian socialists, Lenin was never supportive of Russia’s involvement in the war, labelling it a war being waged by “the capitalists of all countries”. He saw the necessity of Russia disengaging from the conflict at any cost to consolidate the gains made during the October Revolution. In his April Theses, he outlined that it was an unnecessary imperialist war and that the only way to end it was by ‘overthrowing capital’, via handing power to the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. In comparison, the Provisional Government continued to support Russian expansion whilst the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet believed in a defensist position. Lenin’s policy expounded in his April Theses resonated with the war-weary Russian population who cared little about potential loss of territory and the war goals of the elite. This reveals the ability Lenin and the Bolsheviks had in reading and acting upon popular sentiment. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918, served to conclude the war between Russia and Germany, providing the Bolsheviks with the necessary opportunity to consolidate their control over the Russian state and thus ensured the continued success of the revolution. Whilst even amongst the Bolshevik leadership there existed opposition to Brest-Litovsk as there was still a desire to fight a defensist war, the overwhelming majority of the Russian military were no more inclined to fight for Lenin than they were for the Provisional Government. Thus Lenin’s ability to read the desires of the people and his willingness to accept peace at almost any cost was vital in ensuring the survival of the new regime. To have persisted in the conflict against the Germans would have signalled the end of the fledgling Bolshevik state as the support it held would have quickly evaporated.
Without the leadership of Lenin, the Bolsheviks firstly would not have been in the position to seize control in October 1917. Secondly, even if they had managed to do so, it is unlikely that they would have been successful in maintaining control of the Russian state during the aftermath of such a seizure. Lenin was a remarkable leader who shirked the condemnation of even his peers and forged his own destiny. He understood both that it was possible for the Bolsheviks to seize power in 1917, together with the need for having a strong organisational base backed by popular support. He ignored the consensus view regarding Marxist theory, instead crafting his own interpretation that proved much more effective and versatile than his rivals’. He rightly believed that launching a successful revolution relied upon selecting the right timing and conditions. Perhaps a socialist revolution against the crumbling Provisional Government was inherently inevitable, with or without Lenin. However, its nature would have been profoundly different. The Bolsheviks would have not played such a central role in its success and subsequent outcomes which proved to shape the course of Russia and the wider world for the remainder of the twentieth-century. It was the leadership of Lenin, who exhibited unwavering determination, decisiveness, and a willingness to sacrifice traditional notions of a socialist revolution for the practical realities, which resulted in the success of the October Revolution.
Featured image: “Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live Forever!”