Essay on Bolshevik Seizure of Power in Russia in October 1917

Published: 2021/11/05
Number of words: 4740

Historians have disagreed about the causes of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917.

What is your view about the causes of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917?

With reference to three chosen works:

  • Analyse the ways in which interpretations of the question, problems or issue differ
  • Explain the differences you have identified
  • Evaluate the arguments, indicating which you found the most persuasive and explaining your judgements.
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Historians have different views regarding the causes of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917 and these views can be divided into three schools of thought: Liberal, Soviet and Revisionist. Lenin’s character and his degree of involvement within the seizure of power is a key source of contention between Pipes, Hill and Wade as well as the influence of the Provisional Government’s weaknesses and the influence of the Russian people. All three historians acknowledge the importance of Lenin, to some extent, in the Bolshevik seizure of power; however, their opinions differ when exploring his motivation, level of support and whether the revolution could have occurred without him. Pipes, a Liberal historian, argues that the Bolshevik seizure of power was a matter of luck and Lenin manipulated his way into power by capitalising on the Provisional Government’s mistakes. On the other hand, Hill, a Soviet historian, views Lenin as the mastermind of the revolution – without him, it simply wouldn’t have been possible. Wade, a revisionist, stresses the importance of the Russian people, in particular the industrial workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants, as their aspirations needed to be acknowledged and acted upon for the Bolsheviks to be successful in their seizure of power. When looking at these different interpretations it’s also important to acknowledge the circumstances they were written in, whether the historians had any external influences, whether there’s substantial evidence to back their points and whether they look at the Bolshevik seizure of power holistically.

Lenins nature

Lenin’s character and the extent of his involvement within the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917 is a source of dispute between Pipes, Hill and Wade. In the ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’, Pipes provides a Liberal interpretation of the Bolshevik seizure of power and suggests that it was merely a fluke involving Lenin’s manipulation of Russia’s precarious political landscape rather than Lenin’s excellence per se. Nevertheless, he does give Lenin some credit as his ruthless nature gave him an advantage over his opponents. Lenin is portrayed as a devious, power-hungry, ruthless individual who didn’t care for Russia. Pipes argues that Lenin’s Machiavellian nature allowed the Bolshevik Party to prosper and ultimately seize power in Russia. ‘Lenin treated politics as warfare,’[1] meaning he was willing to do things his opponents weren’t whether this be killing his rivals, making false promises or colluding with national enemies. According to Pipes, Lenin did not care about Russia, he viewed it as a backwards country that would hopefully act as a catalyst for a global revolution; therefore, he was prepared to promise Russian citizens whatever they wanted without looking into the future. If peasants wanted private land he would let them take it as all land would be collectivised in the end and if workers wanted to control the factories he would support them knowing that once industry had been nationalised this would fail. Pipe’s argument is supported by Lenin’s short-lived economic policies which gave workers false hope; for example, Figes mentions that the Decree on Workers’ Control in November 1917 which allowed workers to elect committees who would run their factories became obsolete by June 1918 as ‘state-appointed managers replaced the authority of the factory committees and trade unions.’[2] Essentially, Pipes argues that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to seize power due to their willingness to promote untruthful slogans that aimed to defuse the Russian population. Despite Pipes’ arguments being supported by the historical information above his criticisms of Lenin aren’t always justified. In particular, his view that Lenin didn’t care about Russia; Hill clearly asserts Lenin’s dedication to the revolution which was acknowledged by everyone around him – even his enemies. Similarly, Hill demonstrates Lenin’s commitment and sincerity by highlighting that while in exile he continued a consistent correspondence with Russia, writing on average ten letters a day. Furthermore, he continually asked underground Russian party leaders for further information; for example, in 1912, when Pravda first began to appear in St. Petersburg, Lenin demanded detailed reports on where subscription was concentrated to identify where the Bolsheviks had support.

Pipes also argues that Lenin ‘was prepared to collaborate on a tactical basis with absolutely anyone who served his interests’[3]; for example, he received funds from Imperial Germany even when they were at war with Russia. Pipe’s argument is supported by the fact that Germany’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the time, Richard von Kühlmann, said ‘It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a steady flow of funds… that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party.’[4] Overall, Lenin’s unscrupulous nature coupled with his desire for power aided the Bolshevik’s massively in their seizure of power as no other political party was willing to act in the way Lenin and the Bolsheviks did and ‘engage in such demagoguery’[5], giving them an enormous advantage.

On the other hand, Hill provides a Soviet interpretation of the Bolshevik seizure of power and views Lenin in a more positive light arguing that he was the unflawed mastermind behind the revolution – the ‘theorist, organiser and leader of the revolt.’[6] Lenin was completely dedicated to the cause and ‘made his life work the application of Marxism to the specific conditions of Russia.’[7] Hill draws on oral accounts to highlight Lenin’s determined nature: his wife states that ‘he would break off relations with his closest friends if he thought they were hampering the movement,’[8] due to his love for the country and workers. Furthermore, even Lenin’s opponents recognised his resilience as a Menshevik said ‘there is no one else who for the whole twenty-fours of every day is busy with the revolution, who thinks and even dreams only of the revolution.’[9] Again, this contradicts Pipes’ arguments who argued that Lenin didn’t care for Russia and simply seized power there as it was available but would have much rather gained power in a country like Germany or England. Hill and Pipes’ contrasting viewpoints can be explained by the purpose of their writing and the polar opposite opinions they possessed. Pipes was writing during the McCarthy era and was later a member of the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan. Therefore, he was a staunch anti-communist and determined to showcase this through his writing, explaining his constant critique of Lenin. Contrastingly, Hill was a devout Marxist with links to the British Communist Party and thus provides a more distorted view of history, one that wants to showcase the brilliance of the revolution and Lenin.

Interestingly, Hill, like Pipes, mentions Lenin’s ruthlessness. He comments on his ‘ruthlessness when his mind was made up’[10] arguing that this contributed to why he was able to ‘assume the lead of the party.’[11] For example, following the Provisional Government’s multiple failures, such as the Kornilov Affair in August 1917 which allowed the Bolsheviks to claim that a counter-revolution was brewing while also undermining faith in the Provisional Government, Lenin was decisive and ordered the Bolsheviks to seize power. Figes supports this view asserting that ‘the Kornilov Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Bolsheviks seizure of power.’[12] Hill views this ruthlessness in a positive light seeing it as a reflection of Lenin’s determination and dedication to the revolution meanwhile Pipes uses it as evidence for Lenin’s lack of care for Russia. Although it can be argued that Hill’s use of oral accounts hinders his interpretation as he draws on the opinions of a select few and generalises them to all of Russian society this may not be valid as his first-hand information regarding the Bolshevik seizure of power proves to be quite useful.

According to Hill, another aspect of Lenin that allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power was his popularity. In the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s popularity is showcased as thousands of soldiers, sailors and workers were at Finland Railway Station to welcome him and their ‘enthusiasm as Lenin alighted from the train was indescribable.’[13] Furthermore, ‘in only 16 out of the 97 major centres did the Bolsheviks and their allies have to resort to force to effect the transfer of power,’[14] highlighting the democratic and popular nature of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Their popularity can also be seen through the aftermath of the seizure as Hill asserts that there was ‘no wholesale suppression of the opposition press nor violence against political opponents because there was no need for it,’[15] reinforcing the idea of a popular revolution. However, this statement can be disproven as in reality, the Cheka was created in December 1917 to do just that and by 1923 they had executed up to 200,000 people. Furthermore, in October 1917 when a resolution was proposed by Kamenev to abolish the death penalty Lenin himself stated ‘how can you make a revolution without firing squads?’[16] showcasing his willingness to use violence against his opponents. When looking at Hill’s interpretation it’s important to note that ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ was published in 1947 and thus he didn’t have access to the whole picture of the USSR and information was likely to be omitted potentially explaining why he was under the impression that there was no violence against opponents following the Bolshevik Revolution.

In ‘The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War’ Wade, unlike Pipes and Hill, places more emphasis on the Russian people rather than Lenin, arguing that they were a key part of the revolution and without their support, Lenin and the Bolsheviks wouldn’t have been able to seize power. Wade argues that the ordinary people were responsible for the Bolshevik seizure of power due to their rejection of the Tsar and grievances with the state. Acton agrees with this view asserting that the ‘mass drive for true liberation… provided the revolution with its momentum and direction.’[17] Essentially, the October Revolution was accomplished by the people rather than any political party; Lenin’s character and his involvement would have been useless if the Russian people didn’t rally behind the Bolsheviks.

The industrial workers were especially important as although they only made up 10% of the population, their concentration in large cities made it extremely important for the Bolsheviks to gain their support.[18] Revolutionary activities had already begun before October 1917 as workers worked to get rid of disliked and rude managers, ‘in some cases putting a particularly odious one in a wheelbarrow and dumping him outside the factory gate.’[19] Berkman supports this statement stating that the October Revolution didn’t even take place in October and that was merely ‘the formal legal sanction of the revolutionary events that had preceded it.’[20] Here Berkman is referring to the fact that the actual Revolution had already been going on in Russia. The proletariat in the city had been taking possession of shops and factories while peasants confiscated large estates and began using the land for their own use. Furthermore, industrial workers had already created institutions, such as trade unions and factory committees, to implement change with a particular focus on workers’ control whereby workers would play a part in managing factories. All of these actions, initiated by the workers, highlight their desire for change reinforcing Wade’s argument that the people were central to the success of the Bolshevik seizure of power. In addition to this, Wade’s argument is well-supported by the works of other historians such as Berkman and Smith who refers to the industrial workers as the social group that ‘had the most capacity to shape the course of events’[21] as they were the most politicised and organised.

Industrial workers weren’t the only group in society who had revolutionary ambitions. Wade mentions how ‘the peasants carried out a revolution in the village.’[22] Smith supports this view as even before the Bolsheviks had even passed their Land Decree in November 1917, peasants ‘unilaterally reduced or failed to pay rent, grazed cattle illegally on the landowner’s estate… and took over gentry land.’[23] This, again, shows the revolutionary ambitions of the people prior to the Bolshevik seizure of power. Similar to the industrial workers, peasants created peasant and township committees where they acted on issues ranging from land redistribution, wages, rents and public order. The elected township committees replaced the disliked land captains, township elders and village policemen and by July 1917, they were present in most of Russia’s 15,000 townships.[24] Again, Wade’s argument is substantiated by the work of Smith thus increasing its validity.

Provisional Governments weaknesses

Another cause of the Bolshevik seizure of power that has been identified by historians is the Provisional Government’s weaknesses. Pipes acknowledges that political events, such as the Kornilov Affair, the Provisional Government’s failure to convene the Constituent Assembly and the failure of the June 1917 offensive, worked in the Bolsheviks’ favour and helped them mobilise support. Pipes argues that the Kornilov Affair had two main implications: it allowed the Bolshevik’s to argue that a counter-revolution was imminent and alienated Kerensky from the armed forces. Figes supports Pipes’ view and argues that it strengthened ‘the popular belief in a counter-revolutionary threat against the Soviet – a threat that would invoke to mobilise the Red Guards and other militants in October.’[25] Furthermore, the armed forces had been particularly fond of Kornilov and thus after Kerensky attempted to defame his character army discipline massively deteriorated, this can be seen through the fact that the rate of desertion increased as tens of thousands left daily, and there was an increasing desire for Soviet power. Therefore, in October 1917, when Kerensky ‘sought the army’s help against the putschists, it would turn a deaf ear to his pleas.’[26] According to Pipes, the Kornilov Affair had played directly into the Bolshevik’s hands and aided their seizure of power.

The Provisional Government also failed to convene the Constituent Assembly. Pipes rightfully asserts that if the Provisional Government had such elections then the Socialist-Revolutionaries would have gained the majority of seats and thus the Bolsheviks wouldn’t be able to claim that only they could represent the Russian people. However, this didn’t occur and consequently, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to claim that the current government feared elections and only they would be able to transfer power to the Soviets. Figes supports Pipes’ interpretation arguing that if the Provisional Government had been quicker in convening the Constituent Assembly then they ‘might have created a democratic mandate for themselves.’[27] Hill also agrees with Pipes and arguing that their failure to convene the Constituent Assembly was ‘one of the main grounds for popular criticism.’[28] This provides great justification for Pipes’ view as if a historian with a polar opposite political stance can come to the same conclusion as him then there must be some truth to his argument.

The final blunder made by the Provisional Government was the June 1917 offensive. Kerensky was under the impression that in order to generate support for his government an impressive military victory was needed and this would, in turn, evoke patriotism. However, so soon after the February Revolution, the Russian people desired peace and ‘the June offensive in no time ran out of steam and the Russian army rapidly disintegrated.’[29] The Provisional Government’s lack of understanding regarding the people’s desires made the Bolsheviks look like an attractive alternative.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that despite the Provisional Government’s weaknesses Pipes views the Bolshevik seizure of power as an act of opportunism and that they manipulated their way into power. He clearly states that ‘the Bolshevik triumph in October 1917…was a rather chancy affair: it required various mistakes of their opponents for the Bolsheviks to win power and hold on to it.’[30] The fact that the Bolshevik seizure of power was a ‘chancy affair’ can be seen through the fact that on multiple occasions Lenin doubted it. For example, Schapiro highlights that while in exile Lenin ‘expressed the opinion that ‘we older men’ might not live to see the revolution in Russia.’[31] The fact that Lenin, a man who understood the weaknesses of tsarist Russia due to his significant research, couldn’t foresee its impending downfall suggests that the Bolshevik seizure of power was game of chance. Therefore, Pipes identifies the Bolshevik seizure of power as a ‘classical modern coup d’état accomplished without mass support.’[32] Pipes analysis of the Bolshevik seizure of power is quite a useful one as he provides a holistic evaluation of the event which increases the credibility of the argument. His analysis of the Provisional Government’s mistakes and political landscape coupled with Lenin’s political ruthlessness explains the causes of the Bolshevik seizure of power.

Hill, on the other hand, argues that ‘in retrospect, it is easy enough to see that the overthrow of the bankrupt and unpopular Provisional Government was inevitable.’[33] He argues that the Provisional Government failed to address the Russian people’s concerns which in turn pushed them to more radical parties, such as the Bolsheviks, and aided their seizure of power. The Bolsheviks knew ‘what concrete concessions to make to different social groups… and this won the confidence of a following sufficient to enable the Bolsheviks to seize and retain power.’[34] Hill’s claims are supported by the Brusilov offensive in June 1917 where the government lost 400,000 Russian soldiers and millions of square miles of Russian land. This disaster convinced many soldiers to support the Bolsheviks, the only political party promising to end World War I. Furthermore, Lenin was so sure of the Provisional Government’s downfall that he wrote an article titled ‘Will the Bolsheviks retain State Power?’ nearly a month before the revolution which completely contradicts Pipes view that the Bolshevik seizure of power was a ‘chancy affair’ while also suggesting that Lenin was confident in his abilities and the Provisional Government’s inabilities. However, this argument isn’t as strong as Pipes’ as the title of ‘Will the Bolsheviks retain State Power?’ contains connotations of uncertainty and fuels Pipes’ view that the Bolshevik seizure of power was a gamble.

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Wade agrees with Hill with regards to the Provisional Government’s lack of response to the Russian population’s grievances and how this essentially paved the way for the Bolshevik seizure of power. Wade highlights how the peasants desired their own land and hence it was critical for the Provisional Government to satisfy this want in order to gain the peasants’ support. The Provisional Government failed to do this but the Bolsheviks did exactly this through their Decree on Land in November 1917 which gave the peasants the right to seize land from the nobility and Church. In this sense, Wade disagrees with Pipes in the sense that he doesn’t believe the Bolsheviks manipulated their way into power but rather they did what other parties failed to do – support the people and their aspirations. Again, Berkman agrees with Wade’s view and states that ‘the Communist Party exploited all the popular demands of the hour: termination of the war, all power to the revolutionary proletariat, the land for the peasants, etc.’[35] In addition to this, the Bolsheviks also echoed the workers’ aspirations by supporting workers’ control when other parties didn’t. Workers’ control, the participation in the management of factories and other enterprises by the people who work there, was ‘a major source of friction with the workers and a reason for their turn towards the radical socialists such as the Bolsheviks.’[36] An important element of Wade’s interpretation is that he argues that the people only responded to what was in their favour while rejecting the rest. This contradicts Pipes’ argument by recognising the autonomy of the Russian people and suggests that the Russian Revolution would have been possible without Lenin and his manipulation wasn’t a key factor. Finally, they addressed the sailors’ and soldiers’ campaigns for peace and better service conditions by promising an end to World War I and the outdated hierarchy authority in the army. Essentially, Wade argues that the Bolsheviks triumphed where the Provisional Government failed by ‘speaking to popular aspirations and mobilising the support of the more important groups and organisations’.[37] Wade’s argument seems to be quite sound as he looks at the Bolshevik seizure of power through a more impartial lens, in comparison to Pipes and Hill who both had external loyalties.

Pipes, Hill and Wade all come to differing conclusions regarding the causes of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Hill views Lenin’s nature as the key reason for the Bolshevik seizure of power; however, his argument surrounding Lenin’s popularity is constantly disproven, for example, his view that the revolution was popular and no violence was needed to maintain it. Furthermore, in ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ he lacks considerable evidence to support his claims. Another major flaw in both Hill and Wade’s interpretation is their atomistic approach to the Bolshevik seizure of power by mainly focusing on just Lenin or just the Russian people. Pipes, on the other hand, presents a more holistic evaluation of the Bolshevik seizure of power which increases the credibility of his argument and that the Bolshevik’s did seize power due to the tumultuous political landscape coupled with Lenin’s political ruthlessness and the Provisional Government’s mistakes. Despite the external influences on Pipes his interpretation seems to be the most convincing as he has reliable evidence, such as the work of Figes and McCauley, to support his claims and thus his critical view of the Bolshevik seizure of power is justified.

Bibliography

Selected works:

Hill, Christopher. (1947). Lenin and the Russian Revolution. English Universities Press.

Pipes, Richard. (1997). Three Whys’ of the Russian Revolution. Vintage Books.

Wade, Rex. (2001). The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War. Greenwood Press.

Other works:

Acton, Edward. (1990). Rethinking the Russian Revolution. Edward Arnold.

Berkman, Alexander. (1986) Russian Tragedy. Phoenix Press.

Figes, Orlando. (2014). Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991. Pelican.

McCauley, Martin. (1980). The Russian Revolution and the Soviet State 1917-1921: Documents. Palgrave Macmillan.

Schapiro, Leonard. (1984). The Russian Revolutions of 1917: the Origins of Modern Communism. Basic Books.

Smith, S A. (2017). Russia in Revolution. Oxford University Press.

TSK KPSS. (1939). History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House.

[1]Pipes, Richard ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’ (1997) p40

[2] Figes, Orlando ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991’ (2014) p154

[3] Pipes, Richard ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’ (1997) p45

[4] McCauley, Martin ‘The Russian Revolution and the Soviet State 1917-1921: Documents’ (1980) p138

[5] Pipes, Richard ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’ (1997) p44

[6] Hill, Christopher ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ (1947) p166

[7] Ibid p67

[8] Ibid p44

[9] Ibid p43

[10] Hill, Christopher ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ (1947) p43

[11] Ibid p43

[12] Figes, Orlando ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991’ (2014) p124

[13] TSK KPSS, ‘History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’ (1939) p193

[14] Edward, Acton ‘Rethinking the Russian Revolution’ (1990) p172

[15] Hill, Christopher ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ (1947) p126

[16] Figes, Orlando ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991’ (2014) p158

[17] Edward, Acton ‘Rethinking the Russian Revolution’ p179

[18] Wade, Rex ‘The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War’ (2001) p28

[19] Ibid p29

[20] Berkman, Alexander ‘Russian Tragedy’ (1986) p14

[21] Smith, S A ‘Russia in Revolution’ (2017) p117

[22] Wade, Rex ‘The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War’ (2001) p35

[23] Ibid p126

[24] Ibid p125

[25] Figes, Orlando ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991’ (2014) p124

[26] Pipes, Richard ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’ (1997) p50

[27] Figes, Orlando ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991’ (2014) p105

[28] Hill, Christopher ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ (1947) p127

[29] Pipes, Richard ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’ (1997) p49

[30] Ibid p63

[31] Schapiro, Leonard ‘The Russian Revolutions of 1917: the Origins of Modern Communism’ (1984) p19

[32] Pipes, Richard ‘Three Whys of the Russian Revolution’ (1997) p60

[33] Hill, Christopher ‘Lenin and the Russian Revolution’ (1947) p122

[34] Ibid p74

[35] Berkman, Alexander ‘Russian Tragedy’ (1986) p37

[36] Wade, Rex ‘The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War’ (2001) p30

[37] Wade, Rex ‘The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War’ (2001) p41

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