Ninety years ago the Bolsheviks took power. Or, really it was given to them. The Bolsheviks hardly took nothing that the masses in Petrograd had been trying to give them since July. The antiwar protests against the Provisional Government’s military offensive became bloody, Lenin went into hiding, the Bolsheviks went underground. The masses threw the ball to the moderate socialists, but they dropped it. Then enter Kornilov. The Russian Right strikes back but is driven off by a mostly Bolshevik dominated Red Guards. Kerensky and his Government was bankrupt. The SRs and the Mensheviks did exactly how Eisenstein did in October. Peering out cracks in the windows and doors watching the revolution march past them.
Between July and November 1917, the Bolsheviks grew in membership, electoral, and political support. The Bolsheviks, I think Alexander Rabinowitch once wrote, rode a wave of discontent into power.
Lenin’s small band of revolutionaries had ballooned from 24,000 in early 1917 to 390,000 in March 1918. This gave them a potential cadre to pull from and, more importantly, target their slogans, propaganda, and other forms of agitation. The Bolshevik Party became a small mass organization in a very brief period. Moreover, this new membership comprised workers and soldiers–the revolutionary vanguard in Lenin’s eyes.
Membership wasn’t the only indication of Bolshevik popularity in the countries’ centers of power. Bolsheviks were capturing increasingly winning soviet elections. A graph of Petrograd Soviet returns shows a steady Bolshevik rise. Shortly after Kornilov, the Bolsheviks became the majority. I guess that bolshevik finally meant something. More importantly, notice the SR collapse. By the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks had around 50 votes. The minority parties were too fractured to form any opposition; a chronic problem that led to their defeat two years later.
In Moscow, the Bolsheviks peaked later. The September 24 election to the Moscow soviet wielded around 70 votes. Their closest competition, the Kadets, had a paltry 38 or so. By November, the Bolsheviks had tailed off a bit with 50 votes with the Kadets making a surge. Moscow was polarized between far left and tolerable right. The SRs, Mensheviks, and others had collapsed. Moscow was a two horse race.
The Bolsheviks were riding a democratic wave to power. If political parties in the center aren’t enough evidence, the next electoral returns were the Constituent Assembly shows a similar pattern. The elections totals show the following: SRs 38 percent; Bolsheviks 23.7 percent; Kadets 4.8 percent; Mensheviks 3.3 percent. But these totals become meaningless when you look at the Bolsheviks support in Russia’s power centers. The Bolsheviks carried Central Russia, the West, and tied with the SRs in the Northwest. The SRs were popular in the Black Earth and Siberia. Read: peasant. In Kursk Province the SRs got 82 percent of the votes. And it is likely that SRs were the only party peasants even knew. SRs and their protogenes had been agitating the countryside for years. As to their popularity in Siberia, in addition to aforementioned, don’t forget many of them were exiled there.
Perhaps the most important number on this graph is for the army. The Bolsheviks and SRs were neck and neck. But not really where it mattered. This graph of votes from the Western Front show the Lenin and his bunch carrying a landslide with 66.9 percent of the votes. The SRs were nothing at 18.5 percent. As for the Mesheviks and Kadets, who cares? With control of garrisons through Trotsky’s baby, the Military Revolutionary committees, and about half the army, you have power.
But does this mean the Bolsheviks came to power democratically? Well, first that depends on what you mean by democracy. If it means popular, well the Bolsheviks were popular. No, they didn’t have a straight majority. But they had the mass popularity where it mattered. The calls for the Soviets to take power had been cried since the July Days. Their voices became a fever pitch after Kornilov. “All Power to the Soviets!” And the Bolsheviks heeded their call.
People will probably scoff at the idea that the Bolsheviks came to power democratically. I asked my students what they thought when I taught these figures to a class on the Russian Revolution. “Do these voting returns say that the Bolsheviks came to power democratically?” I asked. Silence. Then one of my students blurted out, “It is if you consider it like our Electoral College.”
I hadn’t thought of that before.