The Bolshevik Consolidation of Power How did the Bolsheviks survive the first few months in power?
Some reactions to Bolshevik power: “The insane attempt of the Bolsheviks is on the eve of collapse…theBolsheviks are alone” (soldier section of SR party, October 1917). “The Bolshevik party will last no more than a few days” (SR leader November 1917) “A revolution is a rising of the people.. But what have we here? Nothing but a handful of poor fools deceived by Lenin and Trotsky…Their decrees and their appeals will simply add to the museum of historical curiosities.” (Petrograd Newspaper, October 1917). “Trotsky was greeted with ironic laughter when he arrived at the Ministry of foreign affairs and introduced himself as the new minister; when he ordered them back to work, they left the building in protest.” (Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 1997)
Problem 1: Forming a government Background: Lenin had proclaimed power through the Soviet. The October Revolution was presented to the Russian people as a rising of the Petrograd Soviet in which many parties were represented, including Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. In addition, there were also upcoming elections to the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks had criticized the Provisional Government for delaying elections to a Constituent Assembly. However, would the election results be favourable to the Bolshevik party?
A Lenin’s decision Instead of exercising power through the Soviet, Lenin formed a new body: the SOVNARKOM. It was exclusively made up of Bolsheviks. Lenin allowed the elections to the Constituent Assembly to go ahead in November 1917. However, the Bolsheviks won only 175 seats against 410 for the Socialist Revolutionaries. Lenin declared that his form of government represented a higher stage of democracy than an elected assembly. The Assembly was allowed to meet for one day – 5 January 1918 – then it was closed down and the deputies told to go home.
Problem 2: Press Background: Lenin and the Bolsheviks were aware of how important political press was. The Bolsheviks had pumped enormous amounts of money into their own papers and periodicals before and during 1917. By banning other opposition papers, they may prompt significant protests especially from other Socialist parties. However, they may face an even greater threat by allowing it to continue….
A Lenin’s decision Lenin decided that he could not allow opposition press to continue to be published. It was banned in October 1917, firstly the newspapers of the centre and right, and later the socialist press.
Problem 3: Political parties Background: Lenin and the Bolsheviks were aware that other political parties enjoyed considerable support, especially the Kadet party and the Socialist Revolutionary Party (both of whom had done well in the elections to the Constituent Assembly). By banning other political parties, the Bolsheviks risked sparking a civil war. However, if they remained, they posed a continued threat to the newly formed Sovnarkom.
C Lenin’s decision The Kadet party was outlawed. Leading Kadets were arrested and two were brutally put to death by Bolshevik sailors. They were soon followed into prison by leading right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks – all this before the end of 1917. At this stage, however, other socialist parties were not banned outright although their future was very uncertain.
Problem 4: Role of other socialist parties in government Background: there was enormous pressure on the Bolsheviks to form a democratic government representing all the socialist parties. Hundreds of petitions flooded in from factory committees and army units demanding that there be cooperation between parties to avoid civil war. The railwaymen’s union, backed by the post and telegraph union, threatened to cut off communications if the party did not hold talks with other parties. Quite a few of the leading Bolsheviks, including Kamenev and Zinoviev were in favour of a coalition with other socialist parties.
Lenin’s decision A/C Lenin had no intention of seriously including other parties. He was not prepared to see his vision diluted by other socialist parties. Also he feared that he may be sidelined in a coalition government. So, he deliberately made sure that talks with other socialist parties collapsed. He wanted the Bolsheviks to rule alone. However, he did make an alliance with the left Socialist Revolutionaries and brought them in as junior partners in the Sovnarkom. He saw this as useful because, with them on board, he could claim to represent the interests of the peasantry.
Problem 5: Land Ownership Background: Lenin had built up Bolshevik support by promising land to the peasants. He was aware of the tide of popular opposition that had undermined Kerensky and the Provisional Government. But handing land over to the peasants immediately could lead to an economic crisis, violence and lawlessness in the countryside. How would Lenin square his socialist vision with economic reality?
B Lenin’s decision In October 1917, the Sovnarkom passed the ‘decree on land’. This gave peasants the right to take over the estates of the gentry, without compensation, and to decide for themselves the best way to divide it up. Land could no longer be bought, sold or rented, it belonged to the ‘entire people’. Privately owned land was not part of the Bolshevik’s socialist vision.
Problem 6: running industry Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed firmly in the principle of power being passed to the ‘workers of the world’. But they ran the risk of inefficient production, disputes and violence and economic disaster. There had been a great deal of unrest in the factories with factory committees demanding an eight-hour day, better working conditions and better pay.
B Lenin’s decision In November 1917, the Bolsheviks passed the ‘Workers Control Decree’. Factory committees were given the right to control production and to ‘supervise’ management. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks also agreed to a maximum eight-hour day for workers as well as social insurance (unemployment and sickness benefits).
Problem 7 – Nationalities question Background: The collapse of the Romanov dynasty had prompted many national groups to present demands for more self government (independence). The Finns and the Ukrainians were the first to do this. Was the future of the empire at stake?
A Lenin’s decision ‘The Rights of the People of Russia’ decree gave the right of self-determination to the national minorities in the former Russian Empire. Of course, the Bolsheviks did not have control of the areas in which most of the people lived, so this was nothing more than a ‘paper measure’.
Problem 8 – War and Peace Background: The promise that had brought so many people to the Bolshevik banner was the pledge to end war. Lenin was convinced that revolutions in Europe would ensure that equal peace settlements would be reached. But the reality proved more problematic. At the peace-negotiations held at Brest-Litovsk, the German demands were excessive. Any peace treaty would result in the loss of a quarter of Russia’s farm land and three-quarters of her iron and coal reserves as well as 62 million people within its population. Trotsky refused to even consider such a cost. What should Lenin do?
B Lenin’s decision Lenin adopted a position of ‘peace at any price’ and so accepted the terms of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Russia pulled out of World War I. But the consequences of the treaty caused deep discontent amongst those who saw it as a shameful peace.
Legal system abolished and replaced with ‘revolutionary justice.’ Terror – use of Cheka, secret police Central political control - Sovnarkom Opposition parties banned Incentives for Russian workers and peasants ‘peace, bread and land’ in order to build up support ‘class warfare’ – state sanctioned violence against the burzhui (bourgeoisie or middle class).