Revolution or War n°9

(Biannual - February 2018)

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Working Class Struggles in the World from 1917 to 1923

The current situation of capitalism’s crisis returns to the agenda the alternative revolution or war. The Russian October Revolution gives us the response to this alternative and that’s what the media hide. Its lessons are still topical issues. The October Revolution was a response to the war. It was a conscious response guided by the world and historical course of the proletarian struggle.

The bourgeois media, supported by the Anarchists, claim that the 1917 October Revolution was a coup d’état. This theory of a putsch is contrary to the facts. Starting in February 1917, there were two governments in Russia. One was the Provisional Government of the capitalists and land owners, who wanted to re-establish the order and continue the war as well as not distribute the land to the peasants. The Western allies supported this government because it continued the war. The other government was the one of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets). It wanted to stop war and distribute the land to the peasants. The setting up of the soviets was a gain for the proletariat which had already set up soviet in St. Petersburg in 1906. Let us mention some facts from February to October 1917. Agrarian unrest had taken place all over Russia, going as far as the seizure of land and the burning of the land owners’ houses. General insubordination in the army annihilated the old discipline. Kronstadt and the Baltic Sea fleet refused to obey the Provisional Government. The Soviet of Tashkent had taken power. On the Volga, an army of 40 000 men refused to obey. In Petrograd and Moscow and their suburbs, workers’ red guards were forming. The Petrograd garrison had placed itself under the control of the soviets. Late April, there were armed demonstrations of workers and soldiers in Petrograd. The workers of the Putilov factory and of other districts of Petrograd were on near-permanent strike. In early July, they developed new, wider demonstrations with more revolutionary slogans. During these demonstrations, the Bolshevik party had an important role towards the masses, telling them to resist the bourgeoisie’s provocation, which was hoping for a premature armed uprising. In his April Theses, Lenin explained to the masses that the soviets of workers’ deputies were the only form of government. The working class, through its party, equipped the revolutionary movement with a political leadership and an organization. Throughout the period from February to October 1917, the party gained the confidence of the masses, so that in September the majority of Mensheviks of the soviets passed peacefully to the Bolsheviks. This contradicts the putsch lies on the centenary of October.

Lenin, who on his return on April 3 did not address the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet dominated by the Mensheviks but the hundreds of workers and soldiers who flocked to the station, said : “Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers, I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army ... The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters ... The Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the world wide socialist revolution!” (quoted by Trotsky in its History of the Russian Revolution from the Menshevik Sukhanov Memoirs).

The 1917 October Revolution was part of the world revolution, as Lenin said in April 1917, and as the following incomplete report shows. It was the highest episode of the revolutionary process from 1917 to 1923 of mass strike,universal form of the proletarian class struggle resulting from the present stage of capitalist development and class relations” as Rosa Luxemburg had recognized and defined in 1906. But it also was the product of a nascent international revolutionary wave and the first step towards an authentic world communist revolution. This wave ended the imperialist war and continued for several years. From 1917 to 1923, workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets) were created and great mass strikes took place everywhere in the world as indicated below.

As early as 1915 and 1916, strikes and demonstrations began to re-emerge, particularly in belligerent countries, heralding the beginning of the rejection of class collaboration and national unity for war. February 1917 and the fall of the Tsar in Russia are not just a Russian phenomenon. From the beginning of 1917, in many countries and on all continents, the international proletariat wakes up in factories and on the front against misery and war and accompanies the revolutionary process in Russia.

April 16th 1917, the Swedish city of Västervik is under control of a worker council, which imposes lower prices on the shopkeepers, while massive demonstrations take place throughout the country.

In France, in the middle of the war, despite the repression and hostility of the CGT union, the strike of the ’midwives’ in May 1917 comes to crown the rise of the workers’ combativity since August 1914: from 17 strikes in 1914, through more than a hundred in 1915, up to 300 in 1916. There were 700 conflicts and 300,000 strikers in 1917 and the number of strikes was greater than in 1906 or 1910.

In May 1917, like within the Russian army, mutinies breaks out in the German and British armies and, above all, in the French army. “At their peak, they affect 68 divisions out of the 110 that compose the French army” (Wikipedia). September 9th 1917, at Étaples, there is another mutiny of the Scottish and Canadian soldiers within the British army.

August 1917, a mass strike, called “huelga general revolucionaria” (revolutionary general strike) spread throughout Spain at the call of the UGT and CNT. It is violently repressed: 70 killed and 2000 arrests.

August 2nd 1917, the Australian general strike begins in New South Wales (Australia). It lasted until September 8th and it remains so far the most important mobilization of the working class in the country.

But it is especially in Austria that the first event that directly verifies the prospects of extension of the revolution in Europe, on which the Russian Bolsheviks base their whole policy, takes place. "When, on January 14, 1918, the ration of flour was halved, the workers at Wiener Neustadt went on strike. The next day the strike spread to Ternitz, Wimpassing, Neuenkirchen, the Triesting Valley and St. Pölten. The movement spread wildly from one company to another, from one locality to another ... On January 16th, all the workers in Vienna went on strike. On 17 and 18 January, the industrial regions of Upper Austria and Styria were in turn affected by the movement. On January 18, it was the Hungarian workers who went on strike. The gigantic mass of strikers, the fierce revolutionary passion of their mass assemblies, the election of the first workers’ councils in the strike assemblies – all this gave the movement a grandiose revolutionary character and awakened among the masses the hope of being able to transform immediately strike into revolution, seize power, and impose peace." (The Austrian social democratic leader Otto Bauer quoted by Roman Rodolski, Die Osterreichische Revolution, [the Austrian Revolution], 1923). Already on the 20th of December, Minister Czernin warned the Emperor Charles that "we cannot develop a foreign policy when starvation and the revolution burst out in the rear. [...]. If we continue in the current way, we will not fail in a short time to live circumstances that will not yield in any way to those that Russia knows". A month later the Emperor wrote to him on January 17 "that the fate of the monarchy and the dynasty depends on a conclusion as soon as possible of peace in Brest-Litovsk. We cannot here reverse the situation for Courland, Lithuania and other Polish dreams. If peace does not come true, we will have the revolution here, even if there is a lot to eat. This is a serious instruction, in a serious situation."

Mass Meeting during the January 1918 mass strike in Austria

Also in January 1918, the 19th, in Helsinki, Finland, is proclaimed the Socialist Republic of Workers, which will be crushed on April 13, 1918 by the white armies. Exactly at the same time, at least fourteen workers’ councils were born between January 1918 and April 1918 in several cities in Norway including Bergen. In Ireland, on April 28, 1918, there is a general strike against the government. Also in January, in Barcelona, women workers revolt, protesting and striking against the cost of living.

The American continent is not spared. On March 28, 1918, riots against conscription began in Quebec, which lasted until April 2. There were four dead and several wounded. On the Pacific coast, August 2, 1918 Vancouver saw a general strike. This is the first general strike in Canadian history. In Rio de Janeiro on November 18, 1918, an anarchist insurgency was launched to follow the example of the Russian revolution. It was repressed and a state of emergency declared.

In Japan, July 23, 1918, began a series of ’rice riots’ against rising prices. The social unrest quickly degenerated into riots, strikes, looting, incendiary bombs thrown at police stations and administration offices, and finally into armed clashes. By mid-September 1918, more than 623 events had occurred in 38 major cities, 153 cities and 177 villages, with more than 2 million participants. Some 25,000 people were arrested, of whom 8,200 were convicted of various crimes, and their punishment ranged from minor fines to death.

In London, on August 16, 1918, the strike of the female workers of public transport takes place for wage equality with men. The strike extends to other cities like Hastings, Bath, Bristol, Southend and Birmingham on August 23rd. On November 9, 1918 in the Netherlands, at the very moment when the German sailors revolt, begins the ’red week’ as an attempt of socialist revolution.

And finally, as a logical and inevitable continuation of the international series of proletarian revolts, this generalized revolutionary perspective seems to come to fruition with the outbreak of the revolution in Germany in November 1918, the massive creation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, the constitution of the Communist Party of Germany in December 1918 until the premature insurrection was annihilated in blood in January 1919 in Berlin - these events are better known and we do not present them here. The murder of thousands of proletarians and communist militants, and especially of the two leading figures of the Communist Party of Germany, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, by the Freikorps at the orders of the Social Democratic government of Ebert and Noske, does not signal the end of the international revolutionary wave, even if it marks a major setback to the international expansion of the revolution, thus reinforcing the isolation of revolutionary Russia.

In Great Britain, a strike for 40 hours a week began on January 30th 1919. In Glasgow, still in January, there was a tsunami of mutinies in Southwick, Folkestone, Dover, Osterley Park, Shortlands, Westerham Hill, Felixstowe, Grove Park, Shoreham, Briston, Aldershot, Kempton Park, Southampton Maidstone, Blackpool, Park Royal, Chatham, Fairlop et Biggin Hill, as well as in several London railway stations where troops refused to embark for Russia and France.

On March 21st 1919, the Republic of the workers councils of Hungary is declared. It was power until August 1919 when it too was bloodily suppressed. In Prešov, June 16th, it is the turn of the Council Republic of Slovakia to be declared. It is smashed July 7th by the Czechoslovakian army.

April 19th 1919, mutinies of French sailors in the Black Sea city of Sevastapol broke out on the cruiser Le France. They refused to fight the Bolsheviks. In June, a wave of strikes began in the Paris surburbs. The political demands had a dominant place. In the city of Saint-Denis, June 4th, the unionists made an assembly of 3000 strikers vote on a resolution specifying that “the inter-union committee of Saint-Denis transforms itself into an executive committee of the soviet and addresses an ultimatum to the government to cede its power to the working class”.

February 5th 1919 in Spain, is launched the “huelga de La Canadiense” [The Strike of the Canadiense], a general strike which paralyzed 70% of the Catalan industry for 44 days and succeeded in obtaining the 8 hour working day. In Ireland, April 14th, a general strike in the city of Limerick set up a workers’ council. As well, in Poland, hundreds of workers councils arose throughout the country. These councils gathered proletarians regardless of their gender and nationality.

The North American continent is not left out. In the United States, February 6, 1919, the general strike in Seattle would last until February 11. On September 21, 1919, another major steel strike in the United States continued until January 8, 1920. It affected the iron and steel plants of Pueblo, Chicago, Wheeling, Johnstown, Cleveland, Lackawanna, and Youngstown. In several states like Delaware, Indiana and Pennsylvania, the strike is brutally repressed (mass arrests, proclamation of martial law, etc.).

In Winnipeg, Canada, a citywide general strike broke out from May 15 to June 25, 1919. With tens of thousands of workers, it is one of the most influential strikes in the country’s history. In 1919, at Kinmel Bay in North Wales (United Kingdom), Canadian soldiers mutinied, demanding their return to Canada and resisting any attempt to coerce them into imperialist interventions against Soviet Russia. The main actors in the mutiny would be executed by the military for openly declaring their solidarity with the proletarian revolution.

In Puerto Natale, Chile, inspired by the Paris Commune, the Commune of Puerto Natales was proclaimed on January 23rd 1919. It lasted several days.

In South Africa, in Johannesburg, an electricity and streetcar strike was declared in April 1919 in which the workers provided the service of the trams themselves under the control of a Control Office they had put in place for this purpose. The strike ended in a total victory for their demands.

In 1920, despite the growing isolation of Russia, the defeats of the insurrections in Central Europe and the repression that went with them, the class struggles’ intensity does not fall. In particular in Germany where, after the Freikorps’ Kapp coup d’état and the general strike that defeated the coup, the creation of a red army 80 000 proletarians strong provokes the Rhur uprising which will finally be bloodily smashed after a month.

At the beginning of the year, February-March, a massive strike of the railroad workers is finally defeated in France while the labor unrest, demonstrations, strikes, repression, will continue until May.

But it is above all in Italy where the hopes for a new working class insurrectionare felt the most. In Turin, March 29th 1920, all metallurgical factories went on strike in solidarity with the Fiat workers’ strike. Factory councils are set up. The strike lasted until April 24th. In Ancona, on June 25th, soldiers refused to embark for Albania. The revolt transformed itself immediately into a popular uprising which from Ancona spread to other cities in the centre and north of the country.

The year 1921, although still experiencing massive and violent conflicts, marked a retreat of the international revolutionary perspective because of the bourgeoisie’s capacity to both repress the proletariat and “offer” peace to exhausted populations and to great masses of the working class still under the influence of the Social Democracy. It is only in Germany and Russia where the class struggle still remained intense. But overall, the isolation of Russia is felt including the weariness and the exhaustion of the Russian proletariat that is expressed in its strikes in Petrograd and which ended in the bloody repression in particular of the Kronstadt garrison by the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Bolshevik party in March 1921. This drama signals and contributes to the international recession of the revolutionary wave that started early 1917. It took at least two more years for the process of international and insurrectional mass strike to run out with the fateful failure of the German October 1923 insurrection for which rising Stalinism is largely responsible. The last expressions of this revolutionary wave extended until 1927 with the failure of the English general strike of May 1926, with up to 3 millions strikers and the country paralyzed, and with the bloody repression of the Chinese insurrection the following year.

Far from having been a putsch, the Russian Revolution was the highest expression of the international proletariat’s revolt against capitalism and the imperialist war and of its aspiration to communism. The period from 1917-1923 was an international wave in which each new episode tended to respond to the previous and whose core was the revolution in Russia.