How did the Bolsheviks gain power in October 1917?

The Bolshevik victory was by no means a foregone conclusion, and in some ways just as unexpected as the Tsar’s abdication earlier in the year. There were many inter-connected factors in their path to success.

The failure of the Provisional Government. Kerensky’s government was weak and unpopular. It came into being upon the abdication of Tsar Nicholas (and the refusal of his brother to take up the throne) and yet pursued the same war aims in the west that had initiated the abdication in the first place. When the Bolsheviks challenged the Provisional Government, there were very few ready to support it.

By contrast, Lenin’s war aims were explicit and highly popular. He had spoken long and persuasively that Russia had no part in the war and needed to contract a peace almost at any cost. This is suggested by the terms of the ensuing Brest-Litovsk treaty. It is also germane that Germany allowed Lenin passage back to Russia (and even financed the undertaking) because they knew his war aims.

On another level, Lenin is personally credited with much of the success of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 because of the brilliance of his oratory. Eye-witness accounts suggest, alternatively, that he often spoke quietly, genially, and indistinctly. He was thus often misheard. The propaganda of the subsequent Soviet government suggests a pasionate and ruthless rabble-rouser, and there is no doubt that the simplicity of his aims would have promoted the strength of his appeal: stop the war… overthrow the government…. down with the Tsar. These are not subtle points!

Certainly, his leadership of the Bolshevik party was as strong and definite as these aims suggest. The young Stalin revered him as “that mountain-eagle”. This must have contributed towards the October success.

If the aims of the party were explicit and definite ( in comparison to the weak and confused efforts of the Provisionlal Government), then also Lenin was able to spread his ideas effectively through the newspaper Pravda (Truth). The Bolshevik newspaper spread these ideas to the masses who formed the bulk of Lenin’s support and who proved crucial during the vital days of the October revolution.

This combination of journalism and simplicity is highly noticeable in the slogans with which Bolshevik ideas were disseminated. “Peace, Land and Bread” “All power to the Soviets”. The other radical groups were quick to point out that Lenin would not be able to deliver on his promises. So it proved: Trotsky’s role in the Brest-Litovsk treaty was hardly commendable; and Lenin and Stalin had never had any intention of offering land. It had never been part of Bolshevik policy. But by 1917 the people didn’t want rational thought but war-cries. Lenin offered quick-fit slogans which they bought wholesale.

The slogans and the newspaper remind of a crucial factor in the Bolshevik victory: the tightness of the organisation. The pattern of total obedience had been long ingrained in Bolshevik ideology. Stalin’s days in Baku suggest something closer to a Mafia crime-family than a political organisation. Consequently, by 1917 the central committee (led by Lenin) sent their orders to the soviets who issued their commands to the factories. In comparison to the democratic Provisional Government there was far more emphasis on action than on conversation.

Behind the scenes, Lenin was financed by Germany, as suggested above. Indirectly then, Germany financed the revolution in exchange for Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War. This was a private deal that contributed hugely to Bolshevik success.

This entry was posted in 1917, A Level History, History, Russian revolution and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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