I've been chewing on this now and then for some months but really, had not come to any conclusion before seeing the curious concept promoted by RT of #1917Live, a Twitter dramatization of sorts (although subject to all kind of adherences and even trolling, as usually happens in Twitterspace).
So I'm thinking that indeed the best way to cover it is maybe to now and then (weekly?, on special occasion days?, both?) to mention what was happening in Russia (and for context maybe elsewhere). I'm not any expert on Russian Revolutionary history but I'll try to get my facts as straight as possible. Also it will probably be useful to discuss more in depth some characters, factions, episodes...
For example I stumbled today with this History on Trial video on Vladimir Lenin, which is probably about the fairer trial he may get in Western media (yeah, TED is quite Westernist most of the time but still they do a good job here):
So what was happening in February 1917? Well, not yet the February Revolution, which actually happened in early March (blame the Julian calendar for the offset) but certainly the mood was getting quite hot: the war (World War I) was raging and Russia was faring quite poorly, with six million Russians dead for a cause that was not even clear, and famine becoming way too prevalent in the midst of the freezing Russian winter. The Tsar, Nicholas II Romanov, had even rejected to form a constitutional government, alienating much of his own entourage, who hoped for some reforms.
So the Tsar figuratively tweets his worry about treason and deceit all around him... but who is to blame? Is it once again the Russian People (and various oppressed nations such as Poles, Finns, Uzbeks or Georgians) going to die in troves for the Tsar for no obvious good reason? Not this time: the Revolution has not yet begun but decades of worker struggle precede this fated year of 1917. Even a failed revolution has happened 12 years earlier, also after a catastrophic war (against Japan), which was bathed in blood by the autocrat. This time it will be different but the people living it do not yet know.
It is in this period of the 1905 Revolution in which the genial filmmaker Einsestein placed his famous movie Battleship Potemkin:
A bit of background
Before I close this introduction it may be worth mentioning some of the factions that will show up. It wouldn't be Marxist enough if we did not consider class structure first of all: there was a growing but still minor urban working class or "classical proletariat" (of which 82% worked in companies larger than 100 workers and 40% in mega-industries with more than 1000 workers) but the vast majority (80%) of the Empire's population were still rural farmers. Most had been slaves (serfs) until a generation ago but formal emancipation had not ended their troubles at all, lacking as they were of land to farm. In some areas, particularly towards the West (formerly part of Poland or Sweden), there were yeoman farmers, but otherwise the land was property of large aristocratic landowners and to lesser extent communal property of villages.
After 1905, the Tsar agreed to create a parliament called the Duma, however it was soon to be reformed in a reactionary way, making the electoral system very favorable to the aristocrats and anyhow with the autocrat always able to bypass it. It is in this period when the two main "liberal" (bourgeois, capitalist) parties emerged: the more left-leaning Kadets and the very reactionary Octobrists. Socialists of all types boycotted the Duma (although a few individuals were elected to its early version) but they were growing strong at the sidelines of the regime.
These Socialists had initially two parties: the Socialist Revolutionary Party
) had an agrarian base, was rather bourgeois-leaning and definitely not Marxist, the Socialist Democratic Party had an urban base and was part of the wider Socialist International, then still dominated by Marxist ideology. However in 1904 the Russian SDP split in two: one faction, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov "Lenin", more radical and claiming to be the The Majority (Bolshevik
in Russian) and another one, more moderate or reformist, called The Minority (Menshevik
in Russian), led by Julius Martov. Both claimed to be the real Socialist Democratic Party of Russia, so they were distinguished by these labels. They reunified in 1906, with the Mensheviks becoming the majority, rather counter-intuitively, but split again in 1912, this time for good.
One of the main differences was that the Mensheviks were skeptical of the chances for a socialist revolution in underdeveloped Russia, while the Bolsheviks thought there was no harm in trying. The Mensheviks also sought their allies among the liberal-bourgeois, while the Bolsheviks strongly preferred the peasantry instead. This same story would repeat later in China, albeit without a formal split of the Communist Party, as Stalin's Komintern and the official PCC leadership did not believe in the chances of a socialist revolution there either, preferring to cooperate with the Kuomintang "nationalists", but Mao and his rather unorthodox faction did and actually succeeded in due time.
Another Socialist faction we just cannot ignore were the Anarchists or Libertarian Socialists/Communists (naming conventions have changed through time and tendency). A venerable figure was still alive when the Russian Revolution unfolded, Piotr Kropotkin
, but he had been exiled in Western Europe since 1876. He returned to Russia in 1917 and live there until his death in 1921, being openly critical of the Bolshevik takeover, as he was strongly against authoritarian socialism, which he had predicted a failure ultimately. His funeral would be the last tolerated anti-Bolshevik demonstration in many decades.
But there were others
much more active in these troubled times. In 1881 they even managed to kill Tsar Alexander II, and, a few years alter, in 1887, they failed in a similar attempt against his heir Alexander III. Lenin's older brother Aleksander was the leading conspirator and was therefore executed. A little star shines in his memory (no kidding: asteroid 2112 Ulyanov is named in his honor). Anarchist agitation and armed struggle became very important around 1905 but Tsarist repression was brutal and they were pretty much annihilated by 1909. However they will resurface in 1917, being an important faction in the Soviet movement, in an uneasy alliance with the Bolsheviks, who also nominally supported the soviets (councils), so it is important in all this historical review to ponder what do we mean when we say "soviet": do we mean the autocracy implemented by Lenin's Bolshevik Party by usurping the power of the soviets or do we mean the original grassroots assemblies that represented the working classes?
Anarchists would also become very important after the retreat of the German occupation force in 1918 in Eastern Ukraine (now again shattered by rebellion and struggle against tyranny) under the leadership of Nestor Makhno
, and traces of their ideals (all the power to the soviets
, a demand usurped by Lenin to his authoritarian convenience) were also present in the Krondstadt uprising, made by Bolshevik Party member soldiers to a large extent.
Back to the Bolsheviks, three characters are particularly important and will come once and again as History unfolds: Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Who were these guys?
I have already outlined the role of Lenin in the formation of the Bolshevik Party, of which he was unquestionable leader all the time. He was also a very notable intellectual, whose work is very much worth reading regardless of what we may think of him. He was imprisoned in Siberia at the end of the 19th century and soon after he founded the newspaper Iskra (Spark). In 1902 he published his most famous work, What Is To Be Done?, in which he argued that class consciousness was only achievable by activism and agitation outside of the industries, that worker spontaneous self-organization can only lead to limited and limiting trade-unionism and not to revolution. There is a point to make from the perspective that only time can give that he may have been right for the Fordist period (formal subsumption of work into capital in Marx' terminology) but that since the arrival of Toyotism (REAL subsumption) and its political branch Thatcherism/Reaganism, unions are pretty much done and the only real sphere remaining for the workers' struggle is certainly outside the companies, where repression is simply brutal and organization tends to zero way too rapidly. An open debate of course.
Another seminal work of Lenin is Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, which comes very handy today as well, as the term "imperialism" is used often and many geopolitical situations resemble very much the inter-imperialist struggle between the great powers of the early 20th century, at least to some extent. In this work he opposed the views of Kautsky (one of the founding fathers of Social-Democracy as we know it today), who argued for the unavoidable cooperation of all capitalist powers in the exploitation of the global periphery (colonies and semi-colonies, the Third World in modern terminology). Lenin correctly argued that imperialist tendencies would instead cause conflict among the various capitalist powers, increasing the contradictions. One could argue that Lenin "cheated" because he wrote that in 1917, after WWI was well advanced, while Kautsky had published his work in 1914 instead. But, "cheat" or not, he was clearly correct and we can see the same happening today with tensions rising between the various capitalist powers: US-China rivalry on top of all but also the US siege of Russia, the, barely hidden, growing tensions between Germany and the Anglosaxon power ring, etc. He also transferred the focus of revolution to the periphery and, at least for the 20th century, he was again right, even if there is much to debate about whether those revolutions are genuinely socialist or rather sui generis versions of Capitalism, a Capitalism without bourgeoisie, which otherwise would be just subservient to the core powers ("comprador bourgeoisie") and hardly a national development force.
One of the early critics of Lenin was Lev Davidovich Bronstein, an Ukranian better known as Leon Trotsky, who was confronted with the Bolshevik leader at the split of the SDP in 1904. However he soon became an "independent" because the Mensheviks were clearly aligning themselves with the liberal bourgeois parties. He worked to reconcile the two factions to no avail and in 1917 he finally joined the Bolshevik Party, where many looked at him with distrust. His main theoretical work is the theory of Permanent Revolution (later partly adopted by the Maoists). The term was originally coined by Marx in several passages, so Trotsky is mostly extending on these early approaches of the genius of Trier. However, much as Lenin, Trotsky has a peripheral focus and thus he argued (correctly) that in Russia the bourgeoisie cannot make a successful progressive revolution but that only the proletariat can do it. This part of the theory, very innovative, was partly adopted by Lenin (April Theses) and was initially rejected even within the Bolshevik Party, however it would later become mainstream. But Trotsky also sustained that the revolution in a single country would unavoidably fail, unless it was quickly followed up by revolutions in other states, a concept never fully debated by the Bolsheviks and clearly opposed by Stalin. The key idea of Permanent Revolution in any case seems to be that the global working class (Humankind by another name) cannot falter until socialist goals have been thoroughly achieved, at risk of success of bourgeois reaction.
Finally we won't forget the fierce Georgian activist who would eventually become sorta-Tsar himself, Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, who eventually adopted the alias of Stalin: Steel Man. He would be described today as a "terrorist" no doubt, leading part of the Bolshevik party into acts of robbery, extortion and assassination with terrible clarity and outstanding leadership. While he did write some articles and is co-author of the post-revolutionary concept of "Socialism in one country" (opposed to Trotsky's frantic Internationalism), Stalin was mostly a man of action and doubtlessly a most clever conspirator, whose power grew at the shadow of Lenin, within the Party's activist class preluding the kind of state he would eventually rule and largely shape.