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1917: how revolution ended a war

Faline Bobier

May 24, 2017

This is what Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote about the First World War, the so-called 'war to end all wars': "The war of 1914-18 was imperialist (that is, an annexationist, predatory, war of plunder) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital."

For Lenin it was a matter of principle that socialists of all nations should not support their own side in such a war, since they would in essence be supporting the slaughter of workers in the 'enemy' nations. This was why he was shocked and disheartened when the largest social democratic (socialist) party at that time – the German SDP or Social Democratic Party – voted for war credits and to support the German ruling class in the slaughter that would come.


It's not that Lenin supported one side over the other – he saw them all, especially and including his own autocratic, undemocratic, repressive state, as the warring band of brothers that Marx referred to:

"In reality, the object of the struggle of the British and French bourgeoisie is to seize the German colonies and to ruin a competing nation which has displayed a more rapid rate of economic development. And, in pursuit of this noble aim, the “advanced” democratic nations are helping the savage tsarist regime to strangle Poland, the Ukraine, and so on, and to throttle revolution in Russia more thoroughly. For us, the Russian social democrats, there can be no doubt that from the standpoint of the working class and of the labouring masses of all the nations of Russia, the lesser evil would be the defeat of the tsarist monarchy, the most reactionary and barbarous of governments, which is oppressing the greatest number of nations and the largest mass of the population of Europe and Asia."

And although many socialists had supported the notion of revolutionary defeatism in the abstract, when the time came the vast majority of them (apart from Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia) supported their own ruling classes in the attempt to wipe out workers of other nations in the name of patriotism and 'love of country'.


When the war began, the majority of working class people from all nations were drawn into the patriotic fervour that often accompanies the drive to war, disguised as it is in the flowery words of courage, self-sacrifice and jingoistic nationalism.

About 10 million people were killed or died, as a result of WWI. It was the first 'modern' war that introduced killing on an industrial scale. This was combined with elements of 19th century warfare which translated into barbaric practices, such as generals intent on using cavalry and bayonets in a situation of entrenched warfare and machine guns. Soldiers would be sent out of trenches on mass to be mown down by machine guns on the other side. Millions of lives were lost and all for a few yards of gained territory.

As Trotsky wrote about the experience of the war, “‘Everything for the war!’ said the ministers, deputies, generals, journalists. ‘Yes,’ the soldier began to think in the trenches, ‘they are all ready to fight to the last drop…of my blood.’”

However, WWI would end, not because world leaders recognized the pointless nature of the bloodshed but rather because ordinary soldiers mutinied and workers and peasants in Russia took up the cry of revolution. This revolutionary spirit spread to other countries and other armies.


The period before the outbreak of WWI had not been one of social peace, particularly in Russia, where 1905 saw the first attempt at revolution (the Great Dress Rehearsal for 1917) with the creation of the St Petersburg soviet (workers' council). The soviets were grassroots organizations developed by workers themselves to take on the running of factories, workplaces and eventually even military barracks.

With the defeat of the St Petersburg soviet and the first attempt to overthrow the cruel tsarist regime, a period of reaction set in. However, this was not a permanent defeat and workers were again organizing before the outbreak of WWI. The war itself would eventually act as a radicalizing force since ordinary Russians came to realize they were suffering on behalf of an aristocracy that had oppressed them for centuries and was more than happy to use them as cannon fodder in the folly of war.

Russian casualties were greater than those sustained by any nation in any previous war. Meanwhile, the Russian economy was hopelessly disrupted by the costly war effort, and in March 1917 riots and strikes broke out in Petrograd over the scarcity of food. Demoralized army troops joined the strikers, and on March 15, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, ending centuries of czarist rule.

In the aftermath of the February Revolution (so-called because of the Julian calendar), power was shared between the weak Provisional Government and the soviets of soldiers’ and workers’ committees. The Provisional Government (led by liberals and reformist socialists) insisted on continuing Russian participation in the war despite its now general unpopularity, but they too would be swept aside in October when the Bolshevik Party and the Russian working class would take control.

From the period of February to October 1917 membership in the Bolshevik party grew from 10,000 to 250,000. This was because the Bolsheviks' slogan 'Peace, Bread and Land' spoke to the real desires of ordinary workers and peasants: for an end to pointless war and the possibility of living truly human lives where they and their children might now live unburdened by the yoke of tsarist repression.

One of the first acts of the new government was to end Russia's participation in the war. Of course, this was linked to a series of other changes led by Russia's revolutionary government, which only became possible by ending the costly and deadly war: initiatives like launching communal kitchens and laundries to create the space for Russian women to truly participate in building the new society and breaking open the Russian 'prison house of nations' by allowing autonomy and self-determination for national minorities that had previously been oppressed by the tsarist government.

Workers and soldiers in other countries looked to the events in Russia for inspiration. After 1917, a revolutionary wave swept through Europe, with revolutions first in Germany in 1918 and then Hungary and Slovakia in 1919. Workers struck and took to the streets. Soldiers mutinied in the trenches.

World War I ended, not because of a glorious victory by one or the other of the imperialist blocs that were vying for new territory and spheres of influence, but because the world working class, led by the example of Russia, entered onto the stage of history, not as victims, but as creators of their own destiny. In the words of Leon Trotsky, "The history of a revolution is first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”.

War provoked the revolution. Ultimately the revolution put an end to it.

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