In 1900 Russia was the last remaining absolute autocracy out of the great powers of Europe. Approximately eighty four per cent of Russians were peasants, lead by an over privileged upper class who had enslaved them for centuries. There existed a total lack of understanding or sympathy between the workers/peasants and their ruling class, who cared little about their responsibility and obligation to care for the welfare of their people. By the turn of the century many voices emerged in hope to see reforms of their backward nation. For many years there had been desire for reform, but not until the layer upon layer of revolutionary pressure in the precondition phase did it blatantly warn of change, which Tsar Nicholas 2nd attempted to ignore and oppress. However, his oppression only fueled the fire of revolutionary minds and hearts, who despite superficial concessions by the Tsar in 1905 strived to see a permanent transformation of their great yet backward nation. From the period 1900-1917 the events such as Bloody Sunday, the great strikes, famines and war would confront and enchant the Russian people and eventually leaders to revolution and an end to a 300 year dynasty.
The Tsar Nicholas the 2nd was a man who’s ignorance of his people’s hardships combined with his resistance to any political reform tragically led to his abdication and eventual assassination. He and all those loyal to him believed that he had a divine right from God to be the absolute ruler of Russia, therefore any attempt to undermine his power such as the formation of a constitutional monarchy was believed to be against the will of God. Nicholas 2nd was greatly out of touch with his people, and only received censored reports from the ministers he personally appointed. The many strikes from 1899 to 1903 were crushed with the force of his army, forbidding the population to have any alternate political voice. The peaceful protest of January 1905 lead by father Giorgi Gapon, was responded to with the brutal forces which had oppressed the majority of the Russian people for centuries. Any alternate political voice was outlawed, resulting in the execution, imprisonment or exile of identified revolutionaries. Core to the Tsar’s belief was absolute power, or none, and it was this resilience which would lead to his abdication, his inability to accept and compromise power over the Russian people whom he had little in common.
The upper class of Russian society had little to complain about in the beginning of the century, the many parties, picnics and concerts gave them little to complain about. Controlling most of the wealth of Russia, the upper-class nobles had no desire for change to their luxurious and decadent lifestyle. They had little will to help the starving and toiling masses, and chose to merely accept that it was God’s intention for those to be poor. The wealthy were so out of touch with the majority of Russian society that they did not at first take seriously the signs of revolution around them; the many emerging political parties, the growing amount of strikes and assassinations, and the increasing incidences of violence in the countryside. This ruling class supported the autocracy and had no intention to change Russia in the preconditions to the revolution.
Russia’s middle class had varying views upon the leadership of their country. The rich middle class had a healthy and relatively easy lifestyle and therefore little desire for change. However it was the middle class which fostered the intelligentsia who were the minds that fueled the revolution. As the working and peasant classes were without education, it was the well educated yet not overtly wealthy section of the middle class who developed revolutionary ideas, writings and underground political discussions. The Liberal party was supported by the educated and middle classes, which believed that Russia should become a constitutional monarchy with free democratic elections and that people should be granted civil liberties such as freedom of speech, association and worship. This group of people would in 1905 form the party named the Cadets. In addition the “father” of the revolution, Lenin, was raised in a middle class family with an excellent education at primary, secondary and tertiary level. The middle class who supported change provided the educated few who would provide leadership to the dissatisfied masses.
The Russian Orthodox Church created and supported the core belief that the Tsar was the only fit ruler of Russia. The power of the church, like it had been for centuries in many other countries, taught its followers to accept hardship, and believe that it was always God’s intention. It encouraged the people to believe that the Tsar was chosen by God to rule and protect them, and mislead them to believe that he had their best interests at mind. However, the people eventually realized that their “little father” had no interest in their welfare, and hence revolutionary groups condemned religion and the Orthodox Church which made people accept their unjustifiable hardships.
There also existed supporters outside of Russia who had an opinion of the ruling of Russia, especially during the Second World War. Allies of Russia, France and Britain, believed that any revolution in Russia during the First World War would lead to their retreat from the war and henceforth allow Germany and its allies to concentrate its army on the western front. Without Russia in the war its Allies would be in great vulnerability to the forces of Germany and Austria Hungary, giving them every reason to resist change until revolution inevitably broke out. It was Russia’s enemy Germany who provided a sealed train through the battlefields in 1917, containing approximately 30 revolutionaries. One of these was Lenin. It was in Germany’s best interests that they send people to Russia who would hopefully stir it up, as a revolution at the time would almost grant them victors.
The peasantry of Russia from 1860 had seen little real change in their living and working conditions, allowing continuous discontent due to their economic hardships and a harsh unsympathizing leader. Despite freedom from serfdom and the availability of government loans to buy land in 1861, they were in reality still enslaved by the wealthy landowners to whom they were indebted. In addition to this crushing debt, the peasantry would still use backward, inefficient agricultural methods using small strips of land. There was hardly enough land in comparison to the amount of peasants and mouths to feed, resulting in widespread famine. The government charged incredibly heavy taxes on grain and other produce, as well as every day items such as wheat and alcohol. There were poor harvests in 1900 and 1902 creating great famines and mass starvation in the country side. Such poor conditions and a series of harsh seasons led to outbreaks of violence against local landlords, burning their houses and seizing land for themselves. In reality, the uneducated masses of peasants would most probably have support a revolution which would allow them to own their own land without debts and fair taxes. The complaints of the peasants remained unheard by the leaders until certain political parties would rally to them in order to gain mass support for their causes. The assassinations of landlords and taking over of land did little in the long run other than to show signs of discontent; it was not until they could be organized and united by a strong leader would their complaints be listened to.
The Stolypin reforms resulted in more discontent as the most efficient peasants, which consisted of only around 15%, were allowed to buy land of those who were less enterprising, however this resulted in many losing their land without anything to feed their families on. Some would go to the cities and join the working class; others would roam the country side for work. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of peasantry would see an improvement in their living conditions upon the outbreak of the First World War, resulting in the increased pressure for revolution.
The working class of the relatively new industrial centers went through waves of discontent from 1900 to the offset of the revolution. Terribly poor working, sanitary and living conditions caused the workers to itch for reform, firstly by means of peaceful protest, then repeated strikes and acts of violence. After 1900, workers wages rose little, especially in comparison to inflation. In 1902 an industrial slump caused thousands of workers to lose their jobs. This created conditions for an outbreak of strikes, acts of violence and assassinations. The low wages, increasing food prices and declining working conditions only fuelled the industrial unrest which was crushed by the Tsar’s forces, killing thousands of protesting workers.
By 1917 there had been formed many parties which initially developed in the underground. The beliefs of Populism had influenced the socialist revolutionaries whose primary motivation for reform was the program of the “communization of the land”, where peasant life would be centered on the village, freed from the oppression of rural master, civil and personal liberties would be granted and everybody would have a right to education. Like most other revolutionary parties, they believed in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime and its replacement with a democratic, representative government. The socialist revolutionaries were mostly supported by the peasants, hence the occasional referral to them as the “Peasant’s Party”.
The Social Democratic Workers Party closely followed Marxist principles, believing that the road to a communist revolution was through different phases, including a intermediate capitalist stage. They believed that the working class would eventually rise up against their oppressive capitalist employers (the dictatorship of the proletariat), and create a system where there would be no rankings and all citizens would be treated equally no matter what their occupation would be. At the congress of this party in 1903 there were recognized two different groups which would split the party. The Bolsheviks, or majority, headed by Lenin, believed that the masses should be led by and elite party to which membership should be exclusive. In contrast, the Mensheviks, or minority led by Martov, believed that all people should be able to become members of the party. This main ideological difference separated the party at the only time when Lenin’s fraction would actually be in majority. Even when sent to prison and exiled to Siberia for being a revolutionary, this vivacious leader would still write about the collapse of the regime which killed his older brother and which was still oppressing him. Lenin’s beliefs became too extreme for many, as he specifically believed in the violent and bloody overthrow of the autocracy, and even challenged Marxism by preferring to rush through the supposedly lengthily capitalist phase of a country’s development into a communist state. He stressed the importance of the correct time to ignite revolution, and it was upon his return to Russia in 1917 that he knew the starved, war-torn and disillusioned country would be at boiling point in readiness to change.
Until 1917 the Russian armed forces had suffered a series of humiliating military defeats leading to outbreaks of mutiny and abandonment. The Russo-Japanese war saw the sound defeat of Russia’s aspirations to establish a naval base in Korea and Port Arthur. The sailors of the battleship Potemkin mutinied in 1905 and the losses of Russia’s Baltic Fleet and Far Eastern Army were demoralizing and deplorable. In 1914 the initial enthusiasm for Russia’s participation in the First World War quickly waned. The decisive defeats of the poorly organized Russian army against the Germans at Tannenberh and the Masurian lakes killed, wounded or took prisoner 8 million soldiers by 1917. Desertions began to be commonplace, the incompetent and ineffective officers allowed men to perish without ammunition or weapons, in the freezing cold without adequate weather protection. Upon return to their home towns or cities, the key force to change or its resistance was willing to support those revolutionaries who would end the war and slaughter of their comrades.
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The Bolsheviks were born out of Russia’s Social Democrat Party. When the party split in 1903, the Bolsheviks only had one obvious leader – Lenin.
In the last years of the C19th, the Social Democrats had competed with numerous other ideologies in Russia. Included in these ideologies were the Socialist Revolutionaries and Populists. As with many movements based on pure ideologies, the Social Democrats frequently spent their time arguing about their beliefs and where they should go to further them. The intellectuals in the movement, men such as Plekhanov and Julius Martov, spent their time in debate as opposed to actually getting their beliefs out to the workers and peasants. It was as a result of this that Lenin wrote “What is to be done” in 1902. The work was smuggled into Russia and clearly expressed his views regarding what the Social Democrats should be doing as a party. Lenin attacked party members who “were content to wait while history took its predetermined course.” Rather than wait, Lenin wanted to kick-start the issue he believed in to get things done rather than wait on polemics.
“What is to be done” was an attack on Revisionism – the great opponent to Marxism. It was the start of what is referred to as Marxist-Leninism. Lenin rejected terrorism and he saw the way ahead as the Social Democrats creating a supreme organising body abroad (where it would be more safe from the Russian police) with a subordinate central committee being based in Russia itself. The primary purpose of the central committee would be to carry out the instructions of what was called the ‘Iskra Board’ as the heart of the supreme body was made up of Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich – all members of Iskra’s editorial board.
When the leaders of the Social Democrats met in London in 1903, it seemed that the ideas of Lenin as laid out in “What is to be done” would be accepted. However, disagreements soon occurred as to how the party should proceed – with a revolutionary elite as favoured by Lenin or with a less organised base that would not be elitist. The delegates from the Jewish Socialist Union (the Bund) walked out of the congress. They believed that anything that had been said at the congress would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Jews in Russia. The next cause of friction was when Lenin argued that to make the editorial board of ‘Iskra’ more effective, it should be reduced from six people to three. His view got the support needed to be passed, but not from Martov who was on board of the paper and who was to split the Social Democrats and initially lead the Mensheviks.
While Martov and Lenin may have been in the same party and shared similar beliefs before the split, they both disliked each other. In particular, Martov distrusted Lenin – especially his methods and his uncompromising demands that things be done his way. As a result of the split, Lenin resigned from ‘Iskra’ and resisted all the attempts that were made to mend the Bolshevik-Menshevik split.
The Bolsheviks financed their work by party supported robberies – what Lenin referred to as “regrettable necessities”. Only individuals or institutions carrying state funds were targeted.
The Bolsheviks played a minimal part in the 1905 Revolution. Their impact and influence on the workers in that year was weak. In St Petersburg in March 1905, the Bolsheviks admitted that they could only muster 200 supporters in the whole of the city whereas the Socialist Revolutionaries claimed that they could call on the support of 10,000 – almost certainly an exaggeration – but an indication that the Socialist Revolutionaries had much more support in a city that the Bolsheviks had to have on their side if the revolution was to succeed.
Why was there this lack of support for a party that wanted to improve the lifestyle of the poor? There are several reasons. First, the activities of the police meant that the Bolsheviks had to operate very discreetly as any slip would have been pounced on by the authorities; secondly, why would the workers in the city support a party when they had the seemingly more popular Socialist Revolutionaries to support? Finally, there is little doubt that Lenin himself was not fully trusted when compared to the leadership of the Socialist Revolutionaries.
By April 1905, the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had become permanent. The Bolshevik hierarchy held a meeting in London to decide what to do next, whereas the Mensheviks, as if to emphasise the split, held a meeting at the same time – but in Geneva, Switzerland. No Menshevik went to London and no Bolshevik went to Geneva. Curiously, despite the obvious signs, the Bolsheviks in London voted their support for a reunification of the Social Democrats but then proceeded to elect a central committee that was dominated by the one man who assumed that no such reunification would take place unless it was on his terms – Lenin.
Lenin also knew that if the Bolsheviks were to have credibility, they had to appeal to the working class in Russia. That meant not making promises that could not be kept.
|“If we were now (in 1905) to promise to the Russian proletariat that we can seize full power, we would be repeating the error of the Socialist Revolutionaries.” (Lenin)|
Why did the Bolsheviks succeed?
Probably the most important factor was Lenin himself. He was a driven man who believed that those who would lead the workers had to be an educated elite capable of doing things that an uneducated majority could not. He also developed a set of beliefs that would appeal to the working class.
The Bolsheviks did not have an ideology that stressed high ideals. They had an immediate programme for the time when they would attain power but had made few plans for what to do after they had gained power. In the immediate aftermath of getting power, the Bolsheviks promised that they would take Russia out ofWorld War One and sue for peace with the Germans, they would redistribute land to the peasants and give them power within their rural communities and they would set up workers soviets in factories which would work to improve the working conditions and general lifestyles of those who worked in the industrial cities. Such a mixture of beliefs was genuinely popular in both urban and rural areas and it also ensured that the Bolsheviks appealed to the two largest social groups in Russia.
Whereas the Mensheviks were unwilling to force through events, the Bolsheviks were the opposite. Lenin believed that not even the masses could be relied on to move in the way he wished – therefore, the Bolsheviks had to be the party that initiated action.
|“We cannot be guided by the mood of the masses; that is changeable and unaccountable. The masses have given their confidence to the Bolsheviks and ask from them not words but deeds.” (Lenin)|
To Lenin, practical issues were more important than the development of ideological theories. Whereas the masses could assist in practical issues, they almost certainly would not understand theoretical debate nor understand why time was being wasted on theory. Lenin always had one goal – to achieve his aim. To do this, Lenin did not have a set way of working and effectively, he believed that any method was acceptable as long as the aim was achieved.
Lenin’s great strength was an ability to organise the party – and much of this had to be done in secret before November 1917. Though he was a ruthless man, he was also someone who recognised another’s talent. Leon Trotsky had joined the Mensheviks in the 1903 split but was later welcomed into the Bolsheviks and became a vital member of the party. Trotsky’s skills as a military leader, his rousing oratory and devotion to the revolution, combined with Lenin’s skill as an organiser who could understand the most minute detail, led to a very potent combination. Their skill infected the rest of the party with enthusiasm and vigour which was vital in November 1917 and the months that immediately followed the Bolsheviks rise to power in Russia.
The November 1917 Revolution is a classic example of how Lenin and Trotsky worked together. The planning for the revolution was done by Lenin, the actual execution of what Lenin had planned was all but carried out by Trotsky. However, none of this would have been meaningful, if what the Bolsheviks offered the people had no appeal to them. Thousands of soldiers were deserting the army and returning home – they certainly supported any party that called for an end to the war. The war had also caused much hunger in the cities and discontent in the countryside. The Socialist Revolutionaries had traditionally been strong in the countryside, but they had failed to achieve anything concrete by 1917. Now Lenin promised land to those people. The message was unequivocal and was quickly absorbed. Lenin’s message of “Peace, bread and land” found widespread acceptance.