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All throughout 1917, the toils of war and cascading revolutionary activity overturned the Russian Czarist government and established the left-leaning but democratically principled Provisional Government. The new authorities made preparations to hold elections. For the many political philosophies and groups then existing in Russian intelligentsia, it was an exciting prospect.
In March 1917, Czar Nicholas II was deposed and forced to abdicate following major bloodshed in St. Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire. But the vast nation, containing many different cultures and races across about 20 percent of the world’s land area, had never been a democracy and was unprepared to implement a universal, secret electoral system.
By May, the Provisional Government had not been able to carry out an election, and dissent was mounting from all sides. The date was delayed multiple times and public opinion sank further.
After several violent anti-government actions throughout the summer, the radical Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin armed itself and mobilized. In their infamous October Revolution, 100 communist militiamen took the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, killing two people, and seized the Russian capital.
As a communist, Lenin despised democracy, calling it a capitalist tool of oppression. Yet to mollify the still-powerful opposition, the Bolsheviks agreed to go forward with elections.
The Bolsheviks would convene the Assembly, but were ultimately unwilling to accept its results. As claimed in one initial report, the proposed Russian parliament “must right the historical wrongs… and protect the working class from exploitation.”
In a speech at the time, Lenin’s right-hand man Leon Trotsky proclaimed: “Long live an immediate, honest, democratic peace. All power to the Soviets. All land to the people. Long live the Constituent Assembly.”
There are conflicting reports on whether Lenin believed he would win the elections, or if he and his Bolsheviks were merely feigning support. In any case, their language provided an excuse for the Bolsheviks to later dissolve the Constituent Assembly.
Bolsheviks held power through underground Soviets, or councils of urban workers and soldiers. Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” was incompatible with the proposed democracy.
In November, elections for the Constituent Assembly were held and confirmed the Bolsheviks’ fears that they—the self-appointed leader of the Russian Revolution—would not win a popular vote. Bolsheviks won less than a quarter of the total vote of 40 million Russians, losing badly to the Socialist Revolutionaries who had broad support from the peasant masses.
As described by Tony Cliff, a British communist writer, Lenin derided the election results, saying that “obsolete laws” had given the Socialist Revolutionaries (labelled as right-wing by the Bolsheviks) “undue weight.”
In the article “The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” Lenin expressed his anger with the peasant population: “The country cannot be equal to the town under the historical conditions of this epoch. The town inevitably leads the country. The country inevitably follows the town.”
When democracy worked against the Bolsheviks, Lenin turned to violence. According to Cliff, revolution and the struggle between “capitalist” and “proletarian” forces boiled down to counting “the machine guns, the bayonets, the grenades at their disposal.”
The Bolsheviks were rejected by the rural peasants, but they gathered a large following among urban workers and soldiers who had deserted from the ongoing fight against Germany in World War I. Lenin and his political party had the military force to take power.
The Russian Civil War is readily understood as a fight between socialist “Red” and conservative “White” Russian forces, but this mischaracterizes the nature of the conflict and its participants. Tens of millions of Russian peasants, opposed to Lenin’s dictatorship, were the most numerous among victims in a war that by some estimates killed over 12 million people, or more than all combat deaths in World War I.
Bolshevik economic policies, or “war communism,” starved millions of people in the Russian countryside when their grain was seized. And after the civil war, millions more were fated to perish in the brutal projects of Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin.