Pushing the Revolution Forward: Lenin and the Bolsheviks' Vital Role During the Russian Revolution
The Soviet Union, like any other modern country, has faced much struggle and development as it slowly gained a foothold on its political and social stance in the global community. While under the constant rule of an oppressive czarist regime for much of its history, Russian citizens gradually grew intolerant of the tyranny and it would soon be evident that a predestined revolution was going to happen. And soon. This revolution, most commonly known simply as The Russian Revolution is to be seen as one of the most, if not the most important event in all of the country’s history. The events of November and March of that seemingly bleak 1917 are immortalized in textbooks and high school history courses and are not soon to be forgotten. However, with a time that proved to be so undeniably significant, there is without doubt bound to arise some controversy and argument. One particular area of debate is the contributions – or lack thereof, so the argument goes – of the Bolshevik party, as led by one Vladimir Lenin. Clearly, anyone can see that these events were unavoidable, especially as the country passed through a time of hardship into and out of World War I. As the country’s fragility and instability became more apparent, so did the inevitability of a revolution that would happen no matter who took charge. Herein lies the problem. Was Lenin’s role in leading the Bolsheviks to a new Russia sufficient enough to claim responsibility for such a major affair? Or did he blatantly “ride to power”1, as say may argue it, on a building state of anarchy in a socially and politically unstable country? It is with carefully structured research that this essay would hope to prove that Lenin simply was not so simply at the right place at the right time. It would take more than a relatively precisely timed presence to be called one of Russia’s greatest political heroes and have his body, mummified, still for display for all to praise in glory to this day. This is just part of the full story.
It needs to be seen, as can often be easily misinterpreted, that the Russian Revolution – or also, The Bolshevik Revolution, as may be correct for this essay – was in simplest terms a two-step process. The March Revolution and the November Revolution. The foremost March Revolution was really the starting point for history to unfold and got the wheels of progress spinning. The current Czar of 1917, Nicholas II, was trying to play catch-up with the country as things quickly spun out of control. Defeated in the Crimean war and still so far behind in the Industrial Revolution that had already hit the rest of Europe, Nicholas began to feel the heat through protests and strikes from its citizens. In struggle, he tried to outweigh his mistakes by providing a constitution and the right to elect the Duma, the czarist parliament. As more and more failures became upon the country, collapse was about to happen while the public was participating in labour strikes and peace demonstrations. Soon enough, as was expected, the populace and even the military revolted, and Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on March 15th. But where was Lenin at this time? Did he have anything to do with this part of the revolution? It is true to say that Lenin was no where near Russia at this period and had less than nothing to do with these events, but this is only half of the Russian Revolution. With the introduction of the Provisional Government (as led by members of the former Duma parliament) and the Soviets, there would still be plenty more for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to “revolutionalize.” He spent all of his life preparing for a single moment; this moment, where could put in place his much-researched and modified Marxist ideas and create a better time setting Russia into place. Lenin could not have done what he would later do in November 1917 without organizing an indisputably powerful and ingenious political party (thus gaining support that is both much needed and much deserved) and removing the Soviets and Provisional Government from rule.
Lenin’s pure virtuosity, backed by the overwhelming intelligence of his Bolshevik party, would eventually seize power in Russia. Not just anyone could do this of course. The Bolsheviks were a rationally fit party, filled by intellects with a great desire – maybe even greed – for revolution. They would apparently stop at nothing to achieve this. Deriving their name from the Russian word bolsheviki, meaning “belonging to the majority”2, they in fact hardly had any part of a majority. When Lenin found his way back to Pretrograd in April of 1917, his party had a mere twenty thousand members. Back in Russia, he faced much rivalry from the Social-Revolutionary Party, the Social-Democratic Party – known by Lenin as the Mensheviks, derived from the Russian word mensheviki, which no less meant “the minority” – and several other parties. The Bolsheviks were most certainly one of the lesser organizations in terms of running popularity, but this did not stop them, and really just makes their final success all that much more incredible when put into retrospect. Though they were said to have formulated their political system as they went along3, Lenin did draw on the ideas of Karl Marx, German economic and political philosopher, just as the Social-Democrats had. Improvising their important political strategy could be a stance for a loss of respect from any rightful follower, and justifiably so, but this does not necessarily imply any bit of idiocy. They knew as well as anyone else that in order to make any significant impact they had to go straight to the essential support of the peasantry. This may be where the other parties had failed to succeed. In order to pull any ground to be the leading delegation in Russia, they would need to “rally the largest number of potential opponents of the status quo”, even those who were entirely opposed to socialism (mainly the peasants and the non-Russian minorities).4 Achieving the support of 80% of the population, especially those who were severely oppressed under the old regime and lacked faith in any sort of system would be a difficult task for anyone. With this support, they would bring fourth an ideal political structure to Russia. Without it, the Bolsvhevik Party would not have gone anywhere in defining and shaping the events of the Russian Revolution as they had. With this in mind, it should be duly noted that this support was gained by implementing such model ideals that would make them worthy competition against the other parties. Their toughest such opposition came in the form of the very popular and very extremist Social-Revolutionary Party. Maybe unlike the others, the Social-Revolutionaries openly saw the peasants as “revolutionary material” and more than just a “petty bourgeois” class5 and quickly gained them great admiration for Russia’s new organization of government. This group was not perfect, however, and their often described “slacking method”6 left the door open for the Bolsheviks to take the lead on their own. Competition was not limited to the Social-Revolutionaries either, but the Mensheviks certainly provided Lenin a run for his money. The Mensheviks believed that the Revolution should not be rushed, and the bourgeoisie needed assistance in bringing down the Czarist regime as well as any remnants, and organizing the proletariat before the upheaval could finally begin. On paper this seems to be the most ideal and logical way; patience and planning; but this really seemed to be their ruin in the end. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, have often been described as “rushing” the revolution and moving ahead far too quickly for the classes to catch up. This, nonetheless, contrary to Marx’s beliefs that revolution should occur when there is a complete polarization between the classes, when capitalism has turned the working class on the upper classes, and when industrialization has matured. This irrational scuttle of revolution may have been ultimately what brought the Bolsheviks great accomplishments, knowing that the country simply would not wait any longer on the brink of something so huge.
Building a political party is only a single step towards any sort of political success in Russia. They proved themselves worthy, and now it was their chance to put their ideas into action. Their first task, before any could be done, was to take power away from the Provisional Government and the Soviets. Now two thousand men strong, the Bolsheviks went tough and took control away from the Soviets during the fall of 1917. A few months later, in November, they ousted the remaining Provisional Government from power in an expeditious coup lead by lieutenant Leon Trotsky, as instructed by Lenin. This was is now known as the November Revolution, the important second half to the entire Russian Revolution as described earlier. As part of his newfound power and responsibility at the head of the country, his job of ridding any anguish from the former regime came next. Though it happened before Lenin was in Russia, there were several leading causes for the downfall of Nicholas II, and none of them could be denied. Most important, the majority would say, is that the rest of Europe had long since given up the order of such an autocratic-based regime and Russia was still so far behind. This was also directly related to Russia’s fall behind during the industrialization of Europe; going through an industrial revolution just could not work under a Czarist regime. All this was not helped by the lingering fact that Nicholas truly lacked all of the ideal characteristics of an autocrat except a sense of duty. Still, no sense of duty can compensate for someone with limited intelligence, a weak will, and a consistently stubborn poise. The population, asides from most of it already being greatly oppressed, lost much of the respect for the Czar-based country after a series of historic humilities. Being defeated in the Crimean War, losing at the Congress of Berlin, being at war with Japan and Germany in World War I – these were large strikes on the armor of Russia’s worldly reputation, and the populace would stand for it no longer. All of this was the lead up to the March Revolutions, but even after such, these humiliations could not be so easily forgotten. It was part of Lenin’s role as Bolshevik leader to offer something better to the Russians, and help them regain a lost faith. He made promises of what they had needed all along, namely land socialization for the peasants (as adopted from the ideas of the Social-Revolutionary party), worker control for the working class, peace for law enforcement, and various assurances for the minorities. There was more to this, however. It is also commonly said that one of Lenin’s greatest feats was keeping power, and not just attaining it. This rightly so, the country went through a revolt that resulted in the eviction of a steady leader just a few months previously, and there was no real reason why they could not do this again if politically unsatisfied. Now using the ideas of Karl Marx, just as he had in his pre-Revolution dreams, he used Marx’s idea of “dictatorship of the proletariat” where, in a temporary dictatorship, they would use power of state to defeat and entirely remove any outstanding challengers to the Bolsheviks.7
How could one revolution, no doubt an inevitable historical event, possibly be dependant on a single man (Lenin), or even his entire Bolshevik following? It could not be. However, the doubt of such history does not satisfy this uncertainty, it really answers exactly how much Lenin and his bolsheviki party had to do with the Revolution. From the reading above arguments, you can see his effects on Russia during this time – even from missing the March Revolution and “really only having to do with the November Revolution”, as some people unrightfully disregard it – are truly undeniable. Against the most bloodthirsty and angst-filled political parties, possibly in the country’s history, they contended for the support of the most prominent people in the land: the peasants and the working class. It is remarkable that such a group could do this so easily – gain the support of near eighty percent of the total population, overthrow the Provisional Government and the Soviets, and hold power – even under the unstable conditions of the time. Even today Lenin is still an important and highly respected historical figure in Russia, seen as a skillful revolutionary that brought Russia to the rest of the world. He is praised and admired for his work now near a century later, not someone who was simply at the right place at the right time or rushed the predestined nature of history. What further evidence is needed to see that he did have a significant impact on the Russian Revolution?
- Richard Pipes. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
- Unknown. Bolsheviki: Origin of Name Bolsheviki. SackLunch.net. http://www.sacklunch.net/personalnames/B/Bolsheviki.html
- Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002.
- Richard Pipes. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
- Sheila Fitzpatrick. The Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Carr, E.H.. The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923. New York: Penguin Books, 1952.
- Newman, Garfield (senior author). Legacy: The West and the World. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2002.
This is an essay I wrote for my Grade 12 West And World History (aka European History) course just this year. I handed it in a few weeks ago for marking, and I still haven't gotten it back so I couldn't tell you if I did well on it or not. Regardless, this is sadly probably one of the best essay's I've written. Here was my essay topic, to be exact: Evaluate the role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in causing and shaping the events of the Russian Revolution. Is Lenin a leading cause of the Russian Revolution or did he just hijack a movement that was already in progress? I hope this helps somebody studying the revolution.
Update (December 19th, 2003): I got my essay back, marked, from my teacher today. *sigh* I got 46% on this essay, because apparantly I didn't show enough my knowledge of the Revolution. Oh well, I have until early February to redo it, and then I'll repost it. Frankly, though, I don't see what's so bad about this -- it's one of the better essays I've written. Anyways, the facts in this current essay are fine, so if you want to use it for factual references be my guest.
Update (January 22nd, 2004): OK, so I was given a few weeks to rewrite the essay from my previous (failed) attempt. I'm satisfied this one is significantly better, having talked about everything else that my teacher had then mentioned. If you see any fixes required, please do /msg me.