– Lenin’s Leadership Essay, Research Paper
How Important Was Lenin To The Successful Bolshevik Seizure Of Power In October 1917?
1 July 1998
Men make their own history they do not make it
under circumstances chosen by them, but rather
under circumstances directly encountered, given
and transmitted from the past.
In any account of history, it is difficult to determine weather the crucial roles were played by individuals or by historical forces beyond the control of any individual. There is on one hand the argument that it is the actions of great individuals that has created the turning points in world history. Aligned with this is the historical argument that it was the activities of Lenin in October 1917, which explains why Russia was a communist nation for so many decades. One the other hand it can be argued that history is directed by natural forces beyond the control of any human; accidents, fate, economic developments, mass movements and so on. In this case it is difficult to see historical figures as anything more than insignificant actors in the play of destiny, mere labels giving names and faces to events. Marx is usually credited with views on essential impersonality of historical processes.
I intend to argue this historical dilemma with a close examination of the events leading up to the October Revolution. This will be done in two parts, firstly, by showing how without Lenin s presence in Petrograd in 1917, the October Revolution would never have taken place and the Soviet Union would not have existed as it did until its disintegration in 1989. Whilst on the other hand it was the political and social conditions in 1917 that explain why very little force was required to exert such an exceptional course of events to shape not only Russian history, but world history.
In order to effectively convey this point I will use the tool of hypothetical analysis to establish the key role that Lenin did play in the October Revolution. While I agree that this is not a widely accepted form of historical analysis, it is however a plausible method of examining the importance of key individuals in a historic event by asking would the same outcome have occurred had they not been present.
Firstly lets examine the extreme of Lenin s influence by viewing the circumstances of the revolution had Lenin not even been born. Had Lenin indeed not been born or not been turned to revolution by his brother s death, the Bolshevik party would never have existed. Lenin himself founded the party in 1903; he wrote the major theoretical doctrine of Bolshevism; he led the party from its conception in 1903 through until his death in 1924. Above all, it was he alone who repeatedly fought to maintain the political independence of the party against moves to mend ties with the Mensheviks, which would have seen the surrender of their political existence, and without the Bolshevik party, the October Revolution is unthinkable.
What is secondly, Lenin was unable to return to Russia in 1917? With this assumption the Bolshevik party would have existed, but it would have lacked his leadership at this crucial point. This situation is reasonable plausible as the difficulties faced by Russian in neutral Switzerland trying to cross over enemy lines back to Russia are well documented. In this case, it is almost certain that the Bolsheviks would have supported the Provisional Government, as the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries did, rather than overthrowing them. This is not at all speculative, but supported by documented fact. The March 1917 revolution was described by socialists as a bourgeois revolution, and it would therefore be premature for the soviet to attempt an overthrow of the bourgeoisie. The Bolsheviks, who at the time were a tiny minority of the Soviet, hesitated for a short time, but on return of Starlin and Kamenev from Siberia in mid March, they too supported the Provisional Government. Lenin, still in Switzerland at the time, had no influence on the party policy directly.
On Lenin s return on April 3 1917, he announced his conviction that the soviet should overthrow the capitalist government and take power in its own name and for its people. The vast majority of his party opposed him. Despite heavy opposition and furious argument against it, Lenin s April Thesis eventually carried the day and the party agreed that the need existed to press on toward an anti-capitalist revolution. The point to be stressed here is that the decision to pursue revolution at the time was against the majority of the Bolshevik party and as such without the influence of Lenin, it seems clear that the party would not have even attempted revolution in 1917.
Lenin s April theses are important from another aspect also, in securing the growing popular support for the Bolshevik party. Having committing themselves to the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had refused to compromise with the capitalist/landowners of the Provisional Government, as all the other socialist parties had done.
Once they had joined the first coalition, the moderate socialists became identified in the popular mind with the shortcomings of the Provisional Government. Only the Bolsheviks among the major political parties, remained untainted by association with the government and were therefore completely free to organise opposition to it, a situation of which the party took full advantage.
The result of the new party line was a massive increase in the party membership, particularly in the large cities. In January 1917 the party had only 23 600 members. At the end of April 80 000 and at the end of July, 240 000. In February 1917, the Bolsheviks held only 40 of the 1500 seats in the Petrograd soviet, by September 1917, that number had increased to provide a majority in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. It was this popular support that provided the basis for the October Revolution. This overwhelming growth of support is unthinkable without Lenin s commitment to the plan layed out in the April Theses.
When power fell into their hands on October 25 1917, the Bolsheviks were ready to seize it, but it is clear that without Lenin s continual goading, the party would have missed its chance. Trotsky himself accepts this judgement:
Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place- on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. I neither Lenin nor I had been in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution; the leaderships of the Bolshevik party would have prevented it from occurring of this I have not the slightest doubt.
The second part to this argument that needs to be addressed is the question of without the October Revolution, the Soviet Union would never have existed. This too cannot be argued absolutely, but I do not see it as an unreasonable claim. In the November 1917 elections for the Constituent Assembly, results show that despite all the support in the towns for the Bolsheviks, they would not have gained power through constitutional means. The Social Revolutionaries secured an absolute majority, with the support of the vast peasant base, of 370 of 707 seats, while the Bolsheviks only got 175 seats. Had the October coup never been attempted, it is likely that the Bolsheviks would never have held power. Lenin himself certainly believed this. Insurrection must rely upon the turning point in the history of the growing revolution It is clearly true that if the Bolsheviks had not gained power, world history would be very different.
As for the other argument, that Lenin was merely an actor in events controlled by natural forces, there is several ways to defend this argument. Firstly Lenin was never in a position to make a revolution and he knew it, stating We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this revolution. In the absence of a revolutionary crisis neither he, nor any other individual, could bring down the government that ruled over the largest nation in the world. Even in October, he spoke not as an individual making a revolution, but an opportunist hoping to seize upon opportunities thrust up by forces far larger than himself.
There are two elements to the opportunity that allowed the Bolsheviks to attain power; a power vacuum and the existence of two alternative governments.
Firstly the power vacuum. By October 1917, the power of the established authority had diminished to such an extent, it allowed a group as small as the Bolsheviks to challenge it. The Revolution itself was simply a test of loyalties, especially of the various military units in the capitals. The Bolsheviks won essentially because the orders of the Military Revolutionary Council of the Soviet were more often obeyed then those of Kerensky s constituted government.
There is one very clear reason for the Provisional Government s weakness, it tried to gain the support of the two sides of society; that being the old ruling classes and the working classes, and in doing so alienating both sides and losing all support. By October 1917, the Provisional Government had neither the coercive power nor the popular support necessary for a viable government.
The presents of two distinct group capable of providing the basis for a new government, if the Provisional Government collapse meant that its replacement would be aligned with only one of the two constituencies, not both as the Provisional Government had attempted. As such the Bolsheviks had the opportunity to seize power.
The most likely candidate was probably the old ruling class, which had provided the dominant opposition to Tsar Nicholas II from 1905 onwards. This group included less than 10% of the population, yet it was the most educated, wealthy and politically experienced sector of the population. They controlled industry, finance and the armed forces. By late 1917, many had discarded their liberal illusions and were now in support of a strong right government.
The other main constituent was that of the working class, of soldiers, peasants and urban proletariat, who were interested, in above all, ending the war, improving the condition of life and work for the peasants and the urban workers. This constituency probably accounted for more than 75% of the Russian population, the potential power of which was shown in 1905, when this coalition brought the Tsarist government to its knees.
It would be absurd to state categorically that the upper classes and the working classes were homogenous groups. They were not. The situation however between the two groups was however severely divided and as such the differences within the groups were, temporarily at least, unimportant.
In 1914, a dangerous process of polarisation appeared to be taking place in Russia s major urban centres between an obshchestvo (liberal, educated society) and a growing discontented and disaffected mass of industrial workers…
As the civil war showed, the divisions were fundamental, and as that war also displayed, both sides were powerful enough to set up governments, field armies and act as potential governments. Any future government would have to seek the support of one of these groups, but not both, for their interests were incompatible. In October 1917, the balance of power was so even that a small advantage in leadership could tip the scales.
In returning to the original question posed, an unusual situation, one characteristic of revolutionary crises, had emerged in October 1917. At which time the opposing political forces were so precariously balanced that political action by a small-determined group could have immense political consequences. This opportunity was not something that an individual such as Lenin could have control over, but it nevertheless took very great personal qualities of nerve, political perceptiveness and insight to not only see, but take advantage of the opportunities thrown up by Russian circumstance. In this sense, Lenin s role was immensely important.
1. Carr E.H., What is History.
2. Cherniavsky. M. The Structure of Russian Society, 1970.New York.
3. Christian. D. Power and Privilege, 1994. Longman House. Melbourne.
4. Cliff. T. Lenin, 1976. Vol. 2. Pluto Press, London.
5. Marx. K. Collected Works 1971. Progress Publishers, Moscow.
6. Rabinowitch. A. The Bolsheviks Come to Power.1976. Norton, New York.
7. Reed. J. Ten Days that Shook the World, 1966. Penguin, Harmondsworth.