The Disaster of the Bolshevik October Revolution

[Older essay of mine. A topic on which there is much confusion, including on the left. Last Tuesday was the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution, an anniversary which interestingly went almost unnoticed. The graphic is from the London libertarian Solidarity group of the 1960s with whom I had brief contact.]

The Disaster of the Russian October Revolution 1917 and Civil War

Take, for example, the famous incident in the Moscow Circus. The humourless Chekists had taken exception to the anti-Soviet jokes of the clown Bim-Bom and burst into the middle of his act in order to arrest him. At first the audience thought it was all part of the act; but Bim-Bom fled and the Chekists shot him in the back. People began to scream and panic ensued. News of the shooting spread, giving rise to public condemnations of the Cheka Terror. Hundreds turned out for the clown’s funeral, which became in effect a demonstration.
– Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 631

After the collapse of the Second International in the various nationalist fervours of August 1914, the second key event in the many deaths of socialism in the twentieth century is the 1917 Bolshevik October Coup in Russia. This has resulted in the long lasting confusion of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ with the horrors of state-capitalist counter-revolution and totalitarian dictatorship, a confusion from which it has arguably never really recovered.

Despite Communist and much socialist mythology, October 1917 was in fact a counter-revolution. Having taken over the state by populist, cleverly opportunist demagogy (‘Peace, land and soviets!’, ‘All power to the soviets!’) and a coup d’état via a minor but strategic military intervention, Lenin and his Bolshevik subordinates quickly proceeded to successfully liquidate the actual spontaneous revolutionary process at the grass roots that was the supportive social context of their own successful coup.

This officially much under-emphasized social process (by both socialist and bourgeois historians) was one that found its quintessential expression in the autonomous, non-party dominated soviets and factory committees of self-organising peasants and factory workers that ‒ in the tradition of the first Russian Revolution of 1905 ‒ had been developing since the March revolution of 1917. This true, emerging social revolution at the grassroots had also produced a political revolution that had, almost bloodlessly, overthrown the Tsarist autocracy. (1)

From this libertarian perspective, the term ‘Russian Revolution’ should thus actually be restricted to the spontaneous process of mass self-organisation in both cities and countryside between February/March and November/December 1917. The latter was a real, i.e. social, revolution, i.e. one potentially changing the relationships of social production and distribution and thus class relationships. In contrast, the Bolshevik October ‘revolution’ was merely political, i.e. a military coup at state level that simply replaced one form of government and ruling class with another while in fact greatly increasing class oppression in production, distribution and general life for the benefit of this new ruling class running the new authoritarian state.

Diplomatically cementing a veritable militarist counter-revolution, the new Bolshevik government made peace with the German monarchist imperialists at Brest-Litovsk by simply handing over the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasants to their occupied fate. Against the long dominant Lenin- and Trotsky-hagiographers of the Left, it is necessary to underline that it was not Stalin but Lenin and Trotsky themselves who then instituted the Red Terror, the Cheka secret police, the brutal crushing of worker and peasant soviets and the bloody massacres of peasants and revolutionaries, the terroristic militarisation of labour and the outright slavery of the forced labour/concentration camps.

As early as June 1918, Trotsky had called for the setting up of ‘concentration camps’ i.e. kontslager: a term that had first appeared in Russian as a translation from the Boer-English, probably thanks to Trotsky’s familiarity with the history of the Boer War where the institution was first extensively practised by British imperialists on Boer civilians.(2) In August of the same year, Lenin also used the term as a recommended policy for dealing with ‘the unreliable’ in a telegram to Bolshevik commissars attempting to quell an anti-Bolshevik insurgency in Penza (town of my father’s maternal ancestors).(3)

After an assassination attempt on Lenin’s life by the Social-Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan in September 1918, the secret police organisation Cheka (acronym for the ‘Extraordinary Commission’ of the Bolshevik Party itself outside all state jurisdictions) was directed to implement Lenin’s policy of ‘Red Terror’. The organ of the Trotsky-led Red Army Krasnaya Gazeta described its revenge in the dulcet berserker tones of the blood-crazed warrior caste known since Sumer and Jehovah:

Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie ‒ more blood, as much as possible… (4)

Concentration camps, the so-called ‘special camps’, were central to the Red Terror and explicitly mentioned in its very first decree. One year later, by the end of 1919, there were 21 registered camps and by the end of 1920 there were already 107. (5) Although the purpose of the camps still remained ambiguous at this early stage of their development, Cheka boss Dzerzhinsky was already defining them as ‘labour re-education camps’, not just for designated ‘class enemies’ but also for those ‘who demonstrate unconscientious attitudes to work, tardiness, etc…. In this way we will create schools of labour.’ (6)

In the civil war period of so-called ‘war communism’ (1918-21), the Red Terror of Lenin and Trotsky was applied not only to the reactionary White forces and designated ‘class enemies’, but also to peasants, workers and all political opponents right and left. ‘Bourgeois hostages’ were arrested without charge, often randomly or as a result of denunciations and personal vendettas, and held in readiness for summary execution when needed. Conditions in Cheka prisons were very much worse than in tsarist jails. Torture was widely used to extract confessions or denunciations. ‘Tens of thousands of summary executions were carried out in courtyards and cellars, or prisons would be ‘emptied’ by the Cheka before a town was abandoned to the Whites. At night cities tried to sleep to the sound of people being shot.’(7)

Peasants’ crops were simply stolen at the point of a gun, resisting peasants killed, their villages burnt to the ground. Workers were forced into slave labour in state-owned factories managed by authoritarian top-down decree and run along the oppressive Taylorist lines (piece work, ‘time and management’ terror) that Lenin so admired in the Hitler-fan Henry Ford. The workers’ own representative organs ‒ factory committees, soviets, unions ‒ were locally emasculated, bureaucratically centralised and totally absorbed into the Bolshevik state apparatus, their strikes crushed, their strike leaders imprisoned, exiled or shot by the omnipresent Cheka.

At the same time the US capitalist Armand Hammer was given asbestos mining concessions under Lenin’s patronage and military protection for his assets by Trotsky; according to Hammer, the latter succinctly clarified the Bolsheviks’ capitalist and counter-revolutionary role in telling him that not only did the mineral-rich Ural region offer ‘great possibilities to American capital’ but that US finance capital ought to regard all of Russia as a desirable field of investment ‘because as Russia had had its Revolution, capital was really safer there than anywhere else.’ (8)

All this Bolshevik state terror against peasants, workers, political opponents and others was, of course, officially legitimised as being in the national interests of the Bolshevik ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in its ‘revolutionary life and death struggle’ with the allied intervention, the White counter-revolution and its parallel vicious White Terror. Most socialists, and at first even many anarchists, both within Russia and internationally, generally accepted this rationalisation at the time (given the general lack of verifiable information flowing from civil war Russia, perhaps, for a short period at least, understandably). (9)

However, even after this struggle ended with the defeat of the last White general, Wrangel, in 1920, the Red Terror and Bolshevik state violence of course did not cease. The final tragic denouement was the attempt at a radically democratic and now necessarily anti-Bolshevik (‘third’) revolution at Petrograd’s port of Kronstadt in 1921. (10)

The Kronstadt sailors and revolutionaries did not mince their words when analysing what they were fighting against in the new Bolshevik system of oppression:

In place of the old régime, a new régime of despotism, insolence, favouritism, theft and speculation has been established, a terrible régime in which one must hold out his hand to the authorities for every piece of bread, for every button, a régime in which one does not belong to himself, where one cannot dispose of his own labour, a régime of slavery and degradation. (11)

This valiant attempt at a new, third, revolution was drowned in a sea of blood (12) by Bolshevik state loyalist troops and, indeed, the Bolshevik Party’s own members who were attending the 10th Party Congress in nearby Petrograd, all under the direct orders of Lenin and the military command of civil war victor Trotsky. (13) The Petrograd striking workers ‒ with whom the radical sailors in Kronstadt had declared their solidarity and on whom they based their revolutionary hopes ‒ had been weakened and demoralised by a powerful combination of slow starvation, Cheka repression and brutality, the bribe of extra food rations and sustained Bolshevik slander about Kronstadt’s ‘counter-revolution’. They thus, perhaps crucially in terms of Russia’s further development, did not come to the aid of the Kronstadt insurrection. (14)

The words of the Kronstadt revolutionary sailors and workers ‒ the previous revolutionary avant-garde of the 1905 and both 1917 revolutions ‒ explaining their heroic attempt at a third revolution, now against the Bolshevik ‘commisarocracy’, against ‘a new serfdom calling itself communist’, still resonate with potential future meaning when we attempt to understand the defeat of ‘socialism’ as an expression of popular hope in the 20th century:

The workers’ patience is at an end. (…) The workers have gone on strike. (…) Here in Kronstadt the foundation for the third revolution has been laid which will open a wide path for the socialist cause. This revolution will convince the masses of workers in east and west that what has arisen here up to now has had nothing at all to do with socialism. (…)
This revolution gives workers the opportunity to elect their soviets freely without having to fear the pressure of any party; it also enables the bureaucratised unions to transform themselves into free associations of manual and mental workers. (…)
The Communist Party has grabbed power by pushing aside the peasants and workers in whose name it acted… A new serfdom that calls itself ‘communist’ has seen the light of day. The peasant has been transformed into a day labourer and the worker into a wage slave of the state, the mental worker into a nothing. …Now the time has come to topple the commissarocracy. (…) The autocracy has fallen. The Constituant Assembly is a thing of the past. The commissarocracy will also fall. The time has come for real worker power, for the power of the soviets!

Having brutally crushed the last popular armed resistance to their rule in Kronstadt, the last workers’ strikes as well as Nestor Makhno’s anarchist peasant army in the Ukraine, and under the banner of ‘socialism’, the new Bolshevik ruling class were then unhindered in erecting a totalitarian system of bureaucratic state capitalism. From a wider and eminently Marxist perspective, the historical function of this system and its Bolshevik ruling class was to enforce the terroristic process of modernisation (rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and proletarianisation) of a predominantly rural peasant society.

In again classical Marxist terms, this was the ‘primary accumulation of capital’ which the Russian bourgeoisie had not been historically strong enough, or the Tsarist monarchy liberal enough, to fully accomplish itself. The new Red bourgeoisie obliged. This process, following its own inherent historical and ideological logic, then culminated in Stalinism and its state-terrorist extension and intensification of Trotsky and Lenin’s concentration camps into the infamous extensive network of slave labour concentration camps, the Gulag.

From such a Marxist historical perspective, the ‘communist’ mindsets of Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism were, in Adrian Peacock’s summary, nothing but oppressive ideologies, ‘grandiose terms for the inevitable phases the Bolsheviks’ bourgeois revolution had to go through if it was to modernise Russia and defeat her small but precociously revolutionary working class for the eventual benefit of international capitalism.’(16)

This eventual benefit was then explicitly realised in the seamless seguing of the old Stalinist state elite (nomenclatura, apparatchiki) into the new rulers and oligarchs of a privatised gangster capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.(17) Mutatis mutandis, the ghosts of 1917 are still with us.

Oxford historian Oscar Figes summarises:

Under Lenin’s regime – not Stalin’s – the Cheka was to become a vast police state. It had its own leviathan infrastructure, from the house committees to the concentration camps, employing more than a quarter of a million people. These were the Bolshevik oprichniki, the detested police of Ivan the Terrible. During the civil war it was they who would secure the regime’s survival on the so-called ‘internal front’. Terror became an integral element of the Bolshevik system in the civil war. Nobody will ever know the exact number of people repressed and killed by the Cheka in these years. But it was certainly several hundred thousand, if one includes all those in its camps and prisons as well as those were executed or killed by the Cheka’s troops in the suppression of strikes and revolts. Although no one knew the precise figures, it is possible that more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in the battles of the civil war. (18)

Figes puts the total deaths as a result of the civil war in Russia, the terror (on both sides), famine and disease as ‘something in the region of ten million people’. (This figure excludes the hugely reduced birth rate ‒ up to ten million additional lives ‒ and the reduced life expectancy of those who survived due to malnutrition and disease, with children of this cohort markedly smaller and 5% born with syphilis). (19)


1.For a concise chronology of this Bolshevik counter-revolution from a libertarian Marxist perspective, cf. Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917 to 1921. For a German scholarly account, cf. Oskar Anweiler, Die Rätebewegung in Russland 1905-1921, pp. 180-320. For the anarchist perspective of a Russian combatant with the peasant army of Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Mahkno, cf. the three volumes of Voline, La Révolution Inconnue. Despite temporary alliances with the Red Army, Mahkno’s anarchist peasant army in the end had to fight against not one but three enemy forces: Ukrainian nationalists and both Whites and Bolsheviks, the antagonistic and yet complementary forms of the counter-revolution against mass self-organization in the workers’ and peasants’ soviets and factory committees. Mahkno died in impoverished and depressed exile in Paris in the 1930s.
2.A. Applebaum, Gulag. A History of the Soviet Camps (2003), p. 19 and p. 31. Applebaum points out how the British probably built on the experience of their fellow imperialists the Spanish, who in 1895 in Cuba had begun to prepare a policy of ‘reconcentration’, a policy intended to move peasants to camps in order to deprive insurgents of food, shelter and support (p. 19). In 1904 German colonists in South-West Africa then adopted this British model, adding forced labour and even human medical experiments to the state terror recipe and the word Konzentrationslager to the German language in 1905 (p.19). Hitler and the Nazis obviously had quite an imperial tradition to build on.
3.Penza was the original hometown of my paternal grandmother Lydia Lach-Newinsky, née Poroshina, who was, with her husband Arkady and son Oleg, one of the two million who fled Russia in 1919.
4.Appelbaum, op.cit., p. 32.
7.O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 647.
8.Quoted from Hammer’s memoirs (Hammer: Witness To History, 1987) in A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 76.
9.It is fascinating to follow the slow process of disillusion and tortuous inner conflict in anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman during their stay in Russia in the civil war period between 1919 and 1921. Despite their direct experience of Bolshevik terror and repression of workers, peasants, Mensheviks, Left Social-Revolutionaries and anarchists, Goldman and Berkman twice rejected fellow-anarchist Nestor Makhno’s offer to join him and his peasant army in combat against the Bolshevik Red Army in the Ukraine. Despite the sparse evidence available outside Russia in 1918, a very early perceptive critique of Bolshevik oppressive practice was achieved by Rosa Luxemburg six months before her murder by SPD-supported right-wing troops in Berlin in January 1919 (cf. her ‘Die russische Revolution’ in S. Hillmann (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg – Schriften, pp. 163-193).
10.The probably definitive history of the Kronstadt insurrection is Ida Mett’s La Commune de Cronstadt (1938), translated into German as Kommune von Kronstadt (Berlin 1971), from which I am quoting. Cf. also Emma Goldman’s autobiographical account in Living My Life, Vol. 2, pp. 875-886. The key immediate demands of the revolutionary Kronstadt sailors and citizens, unanimously accepted in a public meeting of 16,000 people, were: freedom of speech and assembly for all workers, peasants and leftists, free elections to the workers and peasant soviets, abolition of Communist party cells in the military and in factories, freedom for peasants to dispose of their crops and to own animals, release of all leftist, working and peasant class political prisoners, equal food rations for all workers. (Mett, pp. 32-33).
11.Quoted in M. Rosen & D. Widgery (eds.), The Vintage Book of Dissent, p. 86.
12.Emma Goldman, who was in Petrograd at the time, speaks of ‘tens of thousands slain – the city drenched in blood’ and of ‘Those not fortunate enough to die fighting had fallen into the hands of the enemy to be executed or sent to slow torture in the frozen regions of northernmost Russia.’ Goldman, op.cit., p. 886. Both Goldman (p. 884) and Mett (p. 50 and p. 57) record that during the 10 day siege the Bolsheviks also used aeroplanes to drop bombs onto Kronstadt, including onto non-combatants.
13.Trotsky’s ultimatum to Kronstadt included the notorious threat that he would ‘shoot like pheasants’ all those daring to ‘raise their hand against the Socialist fatherland’ (Goldman, p. 883).
14.Goldman, p. 884 and Mett, p. 47. Similar strike actions in Moscow, Nijni Novgorod and other cities ended for similar reasons.
15.Taken from two articles in the Kronstadt Isvestia newspaper in March 1921, cited in Rudolf Rocker (1921), Der Bankerott des russischen Staatskommunismus, p. 101 (own translation, PL-N).
16.A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 75. Peacock further differentiates: ‘Leninism and Trotskyism were therefore the expansionist periods of Stalinism just as Stalinism was later to become the protectionist period of Trotskyism.’ (p. 77)
17.Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) well documents the Russian experience (pp. 218-245). She summarises the shift in ruling class oligarchs after 1991 and the shock ‘market Bolshevism’ first implemented under Boris Yeltsin as follows: ‘[…] the Communist state was simply replaced with a corporatist one: the beneficiaries of the boom were confined to a small club of Russians, many of them former Communist apparatchiks, and a handful of Western mutual fund managers who made dizzying returns investing in newly privatized Russian companies. A clique of nouveaux billionaires, many of whom were to become part of the group universally known as ‘the oligarchs’ for their imperial levels of wealth and power, teamed up with Yeltsin’s Chicago Boys and stripped the country of nearly everything of value, moving enormous profits offshore at a rate of $2 billion a month. Before shock therapy, Russia had no millionaires; by 2003, the number of Russian billionaires had risen to seventeen…’ (p. 231). A similar development of Communist apparatchiks into outright capitalist billionaires – i.e. a modernisation of the ruling oligarchy ‒ is of course also under way in China.
18.O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 649.
19.Ibid., p. 773.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 10, 2017.

9 Responses to “The Disaster of the Bolshevik October Revolution”

  1. So Peter…i really appreciate this…even if it confirms history is just a broken record…with humans perpetuating the same ol’ patterns…
    oppressed rise up against oppressors only to get slapped back down, till the next time it gets unbearable…the ol’ rinse and repeat…nothing changes…just the spin on whose version gets told…you’d think we’d learn/evolve over the centuries…

    • Thankx, Kristi. Yep, ‘humans perpetuating the same old patterns’ seems to sum a lot of history alright. But now it’s getting really exciting, in the present Anthropocene, where those same old patterns could, theoretically, be understood for the first time, and that would be the transformation we need…meanwhile, most people struggle just to survive, as usual, and education is sadly lacking…

      On the plus side, One World is now an objective fact and humanity as a whole has gradually expanded its concerns and rights notions to encompass ever more circles of concern and caring (slaves, workers, women, animals, the ecosphere…). To me, that is definitely beyond the same old patterns that continue to predominate at all levels, and a source of hope.

      (Speaking of which, hope the last rounds of your oncological boxing match have been completed, and it’s a straight KO to Kristi?)

  2. I had no idea it was so awful Peter. Thanks for making it clearer. What do we learn; it’s in the interest of the oppressors to keep the truth hidden, even now.

  3. i think you’re right about humanity expanding its concerns…does seem like there’s more conscious awareness…so it’s probably best to stay positive…
    As for my boxing match…one more KO to go!

  4. Few will defend the devolution of the revolution (the Red Terror to gulags) but I think it would be fair, to history, to include a few positives. The cause of women’s liberation and advancement of rights to divorce and abortion, the rights of ethnic and national minorities, gays and the disabled were advanced, education, arts, and support for anti-colonialist struggles all moved forward until Stalinism. Samuel Faber’s history ( over at New Politics: One Hundred Years of the Russian Revolution) is good without being apologetic in any way. Yours sounds like Brzezinski’s “inevitable drift into totalitarianism”.
    Only to say that the the libertarian notion that every revolution starts good and “locally autonomous” and goes bad with consolidation into a “state” is overly teleological, deterministic and simplistic, in my opinion. Particular context is needed, for instance, would the disparate, independent soviets have withstood the Kornilov coup? Would Kerensky ever have accepted land reform? Without the attempt on his life, would Lenin have been more receptive to dissent? Without US and European involvement in the civil war would Stalin have come to power?

    My concern is that looking forward ( I still try) it seems state actors will be crucial to solving global problems and if the left totally de-legitimizes those consolidated forms of governance, we shoot ourselves in the foot. Even if a “state” is simply everyone living in a watershed….

    I really think October by China Meiville is an excellent account of the Feb- thru Oct. days, for those looking for a good read.

    • Hi Dave.

      1. Re Positives

      Positives of early SU up to Stalin not my intention. Happy to concede most positives you mention. They have little or nothing to do with an anti-capitalist revolution, and everything to do with a state capitalist revolution in a largely agrarian society seeking to modernise and industrialise. Education, mass literacy and women’s equality (as integration into the workforce) are all important parts of modernisation and industrialisation everywhere. I would argue those positives could also have been quite conceivably achieved by a slower industrialisation under outright liberal or else social democratically tamed capitalism, i.e. without the immense number of deaths, suffering and human catastrophe of the civil war, Bolshevik and Stalinist terror and the secret police/gulag state that the Bolsheviks started to build almost from the word go (Cheka December 1917).

      Don’t know if I’ve done justice to ‘history’ (whatever that is), but I’ve tried to do justice to its victims. This usually doesn’t seem to be much of a Left forte unless they’re the victims of western imperialism (cf. my general blog about common Left double standards, and our differences on Castro, Chavez…).

      2. re The State
      My essay was about the Russian revolution, not about general questions of the State. You’re reading things into it that are not there. I did not generalise complex and specific historical processes and say “every revolution starts good and ‘locally autonomous’ and goes bad with consolidation into a state”. What I am saying is that the Bolshevik state under Lenin and Trotsky emasculated and then destroyed the self-management of workers in soviets or factory committees, and brutally crushed all resistance from the left and below (Kronstadt, Makhno) as well as from the right. Anarchists were some of the first to be imprisoned.

      I’ll leave the conjectural details you mention about the Kornilov coup and Kerensky for the moment. Just on the question of Lenin possibly becoming ‘more receptive to dissent’ if no assassination attempt: Lenin was notorious for being a rigid authoritarian ‘democratic centralist throughout his whole career, bridging no dissent. Pinning Stalin’s ascent to power on US-European intervention in the civil war is drawing a bit of long bow. The latter, weak and ineffectual as it was, ended in 1920 with complete withdrawal. Stalin took from Lenin’s death in 1924 until 1927 to sideline Trotsky and achieve final dictatorial power.

      As for your ‘looking forward’ statement about state actors being crucial to solving global problems, your running into open doors (as they say in Germany): that’s just common sense, and I agree completely.

  5. I am probably over-sensitive (paranoid?) about the creeping libertarianism I perceive on both left and right. But I also just finished War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century by Losurdo , where certain strains of revisionist history is exploded and where a long look at the decrepitude of the Russian state, following Russo-Japanese and then World War, helps explain many of the limitations faced by revolutionaries of all persuasions.
    So that when you write that “the new Bolshevik government made peace with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk”, I am wondering if you thought they had some choice in the matter, following military defeat?

    • Hi Dave, gonna stay away from the historical what-ifs and hypotheticals, not very useful. BTW camerado, have tried twice to give some positive comment on your nice-and-angry Capital and Climate blog, but gave up after asked to jump through hoops that somehow didn’t work…frustrating. And is Rising Tide still rising?

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