Why the October Revolution Failed?
Unquestionably, the October Revolution failed to produce the utopian society that was envisioned by Vladimir Lenin. There are reasons that it failed and intellectual curiosity begs to answer the following questions. What did the Soviets do wrong and how did their mistakes derail the revolution’s expectations? Before spending too much time delving into the reasons for its failures, it seems logical to first define what constitutes a utopian society in the context of Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin was influenced by Karl Marx’s ideology, thus he advocated a society which benefited the workers, known as the proletariats. Ideally, he wanted to institute a Russian government where the workers/people shared ownership of the natural resources, industrial output, agricultural harvests, the military complex and the scientific discoveries and accomplishments that transpired in their nation. In other words, the people would ultimately share and administer the resources; therefore, they could not be exploited by an elite, upper class. .
In volume six of Lenin’s Collected Works, he expressed, “We want to achieve a new and better order of society: in this new and better society there must be neither rich nor poor; all will have to work. Not a handful of rich people, but all the working people must enjoy the fruits of their common labour. Machines and other improvements must serve to ease the work of all and not to enable a few to grow rich at the expense of millions and tens of millions of people. This new and better society is called socialist society. The teachings about this society are called socialism (Lenin 366). In theory, the socialism that Lenin wrote about was going to form an egalitarian society where the whole population enjoyed fundamental fairness, but instead, the revolution produced an intolerant, Communist Party dictatorship. Lenin’s desire to eliminate competing political parties, Stalin’s campaign to modernize the USSR and outside pressures from competing political ideologies all contributed to the revolution’s failure to produce a truly, classless society.
Today, there’s a well-established adage, timing is everything, and it applies the October Revolution’s failure to produce a utopian society. The October Revolution was not a spontaneous uprising. The proletariats didn’t collectively unify to overthrow an industrialist sector that was exploiting them. Instead, Lenin made a command decision in the fall of 1917, that the timing was perfect for the Bolsheviks to make their move. He believed it was imperative for them to seize control from the provisional government that was established after the Tsar’s abdication of the throne. He goaded Leon Trotsky, who was better known among the workers, into organizing a Bolshevik attack on the provisional government on October 24-25 (November 6-7), 1917 (Cole, Symes 842). The opposition did not quietly go away nor did the Bolsheviks extend an olive branch to them; therefore, a bloody civil war ensued that was rife with acts of violence on all sides. In November of 1917, the Bolsheviks held an election that was previously planned by the provisional government. They didn’t win the election, but they didn’t relinquish control. Instead, they tightened their stranglehold on power by further terrorizing any individual or groups they deemed to be a threat.
One measure of the shattered solidarity was the rise of the Cheka and Red Terror. The Cheka was an internal security police which grew to number 50,000 operatives during the Civil War. Its attempts to maintain order, suppress opposition, and root out counter-revolution seems to have claimed about 50,000 victims (Faulkner 232-233). Lenin’s revolutionist party eventually prevailed, but they had not won the hearts and minds of all the citizens. They were fearful of losing power and they instituted an elite political party that controlled almost every aspect of the population’s lives. The Communist Party essentially filled the power void that was once occupied by the Tsar. They decided who the police or army would move against and what privileges people would or wouldn’t experience. Lenin died on January 24, 1924 after suffering multiple strokes. A true dictatorship of the proletariat (workers) never existed under his guidance. Instead, he left behind a police state that protected himself, the Communist party and their authority to rule the country. The single party system would further subjugate the population under the leadership of Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin.
Once Stalin assumed leadership, he began implementing his agenda. He recognized that the Soviet Union was considerably less productive than the world’s leading economic and industrial powers. He badly wanted to close the gap, so he instituted a series of five year plans to help the USSR catch up. He ended Lenin’s hybrid socialist/capitalist NEP (New Economic Policy) that allowed people to own property, farm their land and conduct a reasonable amount of capitalist trade. His vision was to collectivize farming and to industrialize the country. Peasants were reluctant to give up their property and peacefully join in the collectivization effort, so the Politburo ordered the military to force them into submission. The party was successful in breaking the kulaks (peasants who opposed collectivization); however, their success was costly.
Displacing the peasants for the sake of collective farming proved to be counterproductive, because they were not incentivized to work hard and produce adequate food for a society that mistreated them. In 1932 the country was in chaos. The collectivization policies of the Stalin Revolution had uprooted society, destroyed formerly prominent social groups and classes, and abolished private property and markets in favor of a new, untested, and constantly changing form of socialism. Millions of peasants and urban proprietors were angry and confused; millions of others had been killed or had died of starvation (Getty, Naumov 573). The October Revolution had taken place fifteen years earlier, but the utopian, classless society Lenin described was not yet close to existing in the Soviet Union. The USSR was not a dictatorship of the proletariat, it was a dictatorship of the Communist party and whomever was leading it at the time. Lenin built a police state to ward off counterrevolution attempts and maintain the Bolshevik’s power. Stalin used that apparatus to purge his perceived enemies by killing or imprisoning them. He capitalized on the state’s power and arrested approximately 3.5 million people and forced them to perform free labor for his series of 5 year plans. Horrible acts of terror took place during Stalin’s reign, but there were some positive things that occurred as well. The industrialization effort was greatly successful and the USSR was rapidly transformed from an agrarian society into a relevant, world power. Another stand out achievement was the population’s improvement with respect to education.
Fortunately, the Soviet Union industrialized, because the country would soon find itself embroiled in World War Two. They signed a pact with Hitler early on, but ended up joining with the Allies to defeat Germany. They successfully stalled the Nazis’ advance on the eastern front and forced them to retreat while the United States and other allies assaulted the German army from the western flank. Once the Axis powers surrendered and the war was over, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s superpowers. A long, and expensive Cold War between the two countries began and continued for the next four decades. Each side wanted to exert their influence on post war Europe and the eventually the entire globe. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union used a combination of diplomatic pressure, political infiltration, and military power to create people’s republics sympathetic to Moscow (Cole, Symes 938-939). The satellite countries formed a shield that protected the Soviet Union’s borders from external assaults. Maintaining a powerful sphere of influence made sense from an ideological and military perspective, but it was extremely taxing on their economy. For decades, they participated in arms races and fought proxy wars against their western ideological enemies. Oftentimes, that meant too many resources were committed elsewhere while severe economic conditions were taking place internally. By the 1980s, groups in the satellite countries started protesting the Soviet Union and the Communist Party’s control over their lives. The Soviets didn’t use military power to suppress their protest and the Soviet USSR eventually collapsed in 1991. That was the end of the Bolshevik’s October revolution. It successfully replaced the Tsar’s monarchy with a world class, military power, but it never produced a classless society. The leadership always imposed their will on the people and they enjoyed a better lifestyle than the rank and file citizens.
According to author Mervyn Matthews, The Bolsheviks’ proclaimed aim was to create a new egalitarian society, free from the blatant injustices of capitalism, and devoid of any specifically privileged group. The Soviet people, whose fate is the concern of everyone of humanitarian views, suffered a massive deprivation of liberty in the name of this ideal. Dreams of popular control of government were finally repressed when the Constituent Assembly was closed (Matthews 166). The workers never self-governed, owned and administered the resources, nor did they enjoy a utopian society. They were not exploited by big corporations or wealthy industrialist, but they were under the control of the Communist Party leadership. Lenin, Stalin and the succeeding leaders of the Communist Party all had agendas that were dictated by their present circumstances. Lenin knew the fledgling Bolshevik government faced many internal threats from rival political entities; therefore, he was motivated to do what he deemed necessary to secure the viability of the revolution. Stalin believed that the Soviet Union’s long-term success was predicated on its ability to stand up to external threats; therefore, he was willing to perpetrate atrocities to make the country a relevant, world power. The remaining leaders were entangled in a cold war with the United States and other ideological enemies, so they were not concerned with implementing the ideals of the revolution. Instead, they were concerned about retaining power and spreading communism.
- Cole, Joshua, and Carol Symes. Western Civilizations: Their History & Their Culture. combined, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
- Faulkner, Neil. The Revolution Besieged. A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, London, 2017, pp. 223-236. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1k85dnw.17.
- Matthews, Mervyn. Privilege in the Soviet Union (Routledge Revivals): A Study of Elite Life-Styles under Communism Routledge, 2012.
- Getty, J.Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. Yale University Press, 1999.
- Lenin, Vladimir Ilich.To the Rural Poor, Lenin Collected Works.Progress Publishers, Moscow 1964.
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