The anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25, 1917, is a day of remembrance for socialists. Revolution remains the only time workers overthrew the dominant order and, in doing so, opened up the possibility of socialism. It represented everything the ruling classes of the world fear and despise, and they unleashed horrific barbarism in response. So, while celebrating the revolution, we must never forget what was done to crush the spirit of rebellion.
There are those who pontificate that if the Bolsheviks had been more reasonable, the civil war that raged in the aftermath of the revolution, between 1918 and 1921, could have been avoided. Many condemn the Bolsheviks for the measures they took to defend the workers state. But the brutality of the whites left them little choice.
Victor Serge, a libertarian, joined the Bolsheviks after arriving in Russia in January 1919. His insights, inspired by a passionate desire to counter the lies of the counter-revolution and see the victory of workers and peasants, combined with his superb prose make him a living chronicler.
In First year of the Revolution, he documents the atrocities of the white armies, supported until the end by the supposedly civilized Western powers. The first massacre after the October 25 uprising occurred four days later in Moscow, where workers were less prepared for the uprising than in Petrograd. Labor leaders defending the Kremlin surrendered after white officers assured them that their men’s lives would be spared.
Dozens of men who had not even taken part in the fighting were machine-gunned. The one who escaped spoke of the pile of bullet-riddled bodies until the last cries died down, and described: “The walls of the surrounding buildings are splattered with blood and bits of flesh.”
“This massacre is not an isolated act”, writes Serge. “Let us remember these facts. They show the firm intention of the defenders of the [capitalist] Provisional government to drown the workers’ revolution in blood. The white terror had begun.
In Finland, the whites took over in April 1918. More than 100,000 people were killed or sentenced to long prison terms, the equivalent of at least a quarter of the entire working class. Women, children, anyone accused of being red was summarily shot. Even moderate socialist parliamentarians were executed.
These documented facts show that the White Terror, as Serge puts it, “precedes and is the cause of [the Red terror], which has no other purpose than to break the resistance of a minority. This is why the red terror is by far the least bloody”. Explaining why the Whites unleashed horrific terror, Serge argued “[it] is in reality the result of a calculation… The propertied classes are perfectly aware that they can ensure their own domination in the aftermath of a social battle only by inflicting on the working class a bloodbath savage enough to destroy it. weaken for decades after . And as the class in question is much more numerous than the wealthy classes, the number of victims to have to to be very large … Up to this time the Russian Revolution had almost everywhere shown great indulgence towards its enemies. He had not used terror”.
Serge was in Petrograd when it appeared that the Whites were going to conquer this center of the revolution. His writings convey the terrible expectations of such a calamity. We knew the terrible revenge of this mortal enemy: anti-Semitic pogroms, tortures and massacres of workers and peasants.
This changed the way workers approached war. On June 10, Serge observed a regiment of barely trained workers, men and women all bearing arms, marching towards the front, now in a suburb outside the city. He writes: “Men no longer go to the front drunk, singing patriotic songs, panic in their hearts and madness in their heads. It was good for the other war [WW1], for mad war. That one, where they understand why they are fighting, is a dirty job, nothing more, which they accept without weakness – but with sadness, because now it is no longer a question of being soldiers but simply of being soldiers. ‘to be men’.
In the days leading up to and following the second anniversary of the October Revolution, Red Petrograd mobilized to repel the advancing Whites. Serge does not paint the Bolsheviks, now called the Communist Party, as spotless heroes. But his story, brought together in a collection entitled endangered city published in October 1919, refutes the idea that they are perpetrated by their enemies as simply intended for a dictatorial regime.
He defends the controls they imposed on daily life, including rationing, forced labor, and the taking of white officers’ families hostage to protect prisoners captured by whites. His defense was that a fundamental question was at stake: the need to defend the workers’ state as a harbinger of a future human society.
The alternative was to return to the old order, which even the middle classes – who despised the Bolsheviks and hated the revolution – did not want. There was simply no middle ground. Either you supported the revolution and did what you had to to defend it, or you gave in and became a traitor.
Serge compares the forces of the counter-revolution, “convinced of the divine right of the rich”, to the “idealistic rebel, who can certainly be provoked to violence, but who cannot be transformed into a complacent executioner happy to be the height”. the service of ‘order’”.
This difference explains why, despite their overwhelming material strength, whites could be pushed back, as “the internal rivalries inherent in capitalist society” weakened their efforts. For example, their generals competed for rewards for the conquest of Red Petrograd. One, in his haste, failed to stop and destroy the railway lines, undermining his own camp.
Resources and fighters reached the city relatively unhindered in response to Trotsky’s call to the country. Above all, the reactionaries were “faced with the greatest material and moral force of the century: the interests and the conscience of a class to which the future belongs”.
He describes the absolute travesty that reigned in a region under a government put in place by white generals, where, “liberated from the Bolsheviks, they applied the laws in force in time of war”. in occupied enemy countries”. According to a respected politician in the white camp, this “liberated” territory is “an orgy and it is almost total ruin. Everywhere, it is the arbitrariness of bandit leaders”. The army profited from flour sales while people were starving. And in several cities “they executed in the street people suspected of sympathizing with the reds; they died by the hundreds, tortured and then hanged”. The British government has spent huge sums to support this inequity.
When Trotsky arrived in Petrograd in his famous train from where he had led the Red Army through hellish battles, he addressed the Soviet. He spelled out his strategy in cold, logical sentences. They would draw the White Army into the city if necessary and fight it street by street, where working-class communities could and were mobilized.
All working-class men and women up to the age of 45 were conscripted. The desperation that had begun to set in faded. Barricades were built, trenches dug and tangled barbed wire unrolled by thousands of proletarians, women and men. Once ready, they took the offensive under Trotsky’s command. There was talk of destroying the whole city rather than handing it over to the “scum”, the word “eloquent” used by a worker with whom Serge discussed the matter.
The Red City, center of the revolution, was saved without total destruction.
Serge, a former anarchist, clarified the essential role of the Communist Party as he now understood it: “The whole party made an immense effort, supported by the entire working population… This effort, and the social and moral causes are responsible for this, explain everything. The party is currently the only organization capable of inspiring, channeling and directing the energies which have just triumphed… The party is in a way the nervous system of the class”.
The party was honest with its supporters, explaining the brutal reality facing the city, justifying what in other circumstances would be condemned as authoritarian. Traitors could not be tolerated if the revolution was to survive.
On the other hand, Serge despised the anarchist center which refused all discipline. Predictably, he became a magnet for white spies. The anarchists faced what Serge described as “the absurd dilemma of anarchism and reality” – they were horrified at the thought of becoming exactly like the Cheka (security police) if they jailed the spies , let alone shooting them. But allowing them to continue to spy was inadmissible. Faced with “the brutal necessity of despising their own…metaphysical principles”, they handed them over to the Tcheka, knowing full well that they would be shot.
The ultimate tragedy of the revolution will come later, when Joseph Stalin leads a counter-revolution from within. Again, the West played a role in this return to class power by maintaining a blockade that prevented aid from reaching the starving millions as well as materials to help rebuild the almost totally destroyed industrial capacity. of Russia.
The devastation reduced the working class, the only social force capable of keeping the democratic structures of the soviets alive, to a fraction of its former size. Stalin, a Bolshevik, built a vicious ruling bureaucracy to pull Russia out of this chaos by using brute force to impose extreme exploitation on the working class.
Paradoxically, this overthrow of everything the Bolsheviks had fought for confirmed their central thesis, summed up by Lenin in January 1918: “The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish.”
As we commemorate the promise of October 1917, it is fitting to celebrate the achievements of the working class in October 1919. Living under siege, hunger stalking their streets, the entire capitalist world supporting the bloodsuckers of old Russia imperial and hundreds of thousands of their most class-conscious died on the battlefields of the civil war, they nevertheless managed to save the revolution from certain destruction. In doing so, they gave European socialists time to overthrow their own leaders and join them in building socialism.
The failure of reformist socialists across Europe to lead the revolutions that broke out to victory has left Russia in disastrous isolation. Without the emergence of other workers’ states in more advanced countries, the material and political support needed to enable workers’ power to survive and advance towards socialism was lacking. Let us stand in solidarity with those to whom Victor Serge dedicated his endangered city collection and imitate their philosophy of life: “in the century of the dollar and mustard gas, life is only worth living if it is devoted to one great cause: that of the proletariat”.