What Caused Russia’s Communist Revolution?

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To understand how and why communism emerged in the 20th Century, it's useful to understand something about the unique economic and cultural history of Russia, which spawned Russia's revolutionary environment in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. For this purpose, we highly recommend the most comprehensive history book on this topic, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes. However, that book is over 1,000 pages, which few people will ever read. Thus, we cover the main ideas from the book and some of our own insights in this Gini article.

The Dark Side of Capitalism

The Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was the inevitable consequence of capitalism's dark side. Throughout the 19th Century, economic development in tsarist Russia evolved around the typical libertarian mantra, in which politicians and corporations promote a nominally laissez-faire ("hands-off") economic development approach. However, in reality, Russian economic policies were deliberately designed to principalement benefit the Russians who were already very rich and powerful.

In particular, the hands-off approach in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in Russia resulted in atrocious living conditions for the vast majority of the Russian population. Typically, 16 people were crammed into a single apartment; six humans were crammed into each tiny room. Industrial pollution, disease and environmental devastation threatened the lives of all poor and working-class Russians. Rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources were infested with typhus, cholera, and many other infectious diseases. Under these conditions, life expectancy was only 30-40 years.

Working conditions inside factories were often even more hazardous. Dangerous machines were packed into factories, virtually on top of the workers. Toxic fumes permeated the working environment. Corporate task-masters forced employees to work 16- to 20-hour days, seven days a week. Workers were threatened with termination if they refused to work in these inhumane conditions. When injuries occurred on the job, there was no compensation or social security insurance. Workers with dismembered arms and legs, disabled for life, were given a pittance and expected to survive with no ability to ever work again. Workers were often treated with more cruelty and abject torture than horses and farm animals. All these conditions wreaked havoc upon the quality of life of poor and working-class Russians for nearly 100 years prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

By the late 1800s, the Russian working class tried to negotiate within the political system to obtain economic and labor reforms that would have improved their living and working conditions. They tried collective bargaining. They tried to appeal to the tsars. They tried to persuade the wealthy landowners and capitalists to pay attention to their suffering. But the wealthy landowners, foreign and domestic corporations, tsars and patrons of the tsars constantly blocked the reforms. They accomplished this by buying off members of the tsarist regime and doing all the usual things that we see monopolistic corporations and plutocrats around the world doing today.

Why Did the Russians Turn to Collectivism?

Russia's collectivist economic system didn't start with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917; rather, it emerged gradually over generations. The Russian population was so poor that the only way they could survive was to share the collective burden of privation and the burden of agricultural production. This deep systemic poverty existed because the tsarist regime perpetuated an entrenched aristocracy that rewarded loyalty to the tsar with the most valuable land and opportunities throughout the country for hundreds of years.

The political structure of a "commune" (from which the word "communist" comes) was originally inspired by France's Paris Commune in 1871. Although short-lived, the Paris Commune was the first example of a democratic socialist political system implemented in the real world. The Paris Commune, combined with Karl Marx's then-recent books about the socioeconomic maladies of capitalism, created an inspiring framework and precedent for future generations of workers in Russia and around the world to reform their political and economic systems.

Democratic socialism, as manifested in the Paris Commune and embraced by Vladimir Lenin, was inspiring to the Russian people because, in theory, it is a democratic system in which workers have more influence over the allocation of industrial, natural and labor resources and the capital produced from those resources. Contrary to popular partisan misconceptions, socialism (and its various flavors) is not a system in which the government owns everything; it's a system in which communities ("communes") own the means of production and decisions about how to allocate finite resources, income and wealth are made through a democratic voting process. This is the opposite of the corporate dictatorships that existed then and today. In short, democratic socialism is essentially a cooperative system applied to political and economic life, which is how credit unions and many co-ops are managed today.

The lessons from the Paris Commune and Marx were the fuel that powered Lenin's ideology, which was the driving force of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. By that time, the Russian population had already attempted to revolt against the oppressive tsarist regime in 1905 after a disastrous war with Japan that disproportionately devastated the poor and working class. Then, as the poor and working class were suffering disproportionately again from World War I beginning in 1914, the Russian population was willing to do virtually anything to improve their lives. Under these particular conditions, the examples provided by the Paris Commune and Marx, as channeled through Lenin, seemed like the only logical and realistic way for a society to distribute the wealth of the Industrial Age relatively equitably.

Many people don't understand that the communes did not cause poverty; the communes were a consequence of deep systemic poverty, which forced the Russian people to adapt and share the burdens and fruits of their meager human existence. This is not merely semantics; it's important to understand that the fundamental reason the Russian people were so poor, and why they revolted, was because the tsarist regime and capitalists treated them like sub-human farm animals and restricted their political freedom and civil liberties for generations. Thus, their poverty came first, which forced the Russian population to adopt a collectivist socioeconomic system over many generations of suffering.

The primary reason the Bolsheviks were popular in 1917 (as the revolution was unfolding) was that the Bolshevik Party was the only party that was promoting peace and an end to World War I. In contrast, all the other political parties in Russia were essentially captured by foreign capitalists, their domestic lackeys and political operatives that were all patrons of the tsarist regime, all of which had economic and political incentives to perpetuate the war. This made it obvious to the vast majority of the Russian population that no other political party actually cared about them. Thus, they began to rationally associate Bolshevism with peace, freedom from tsarist oppression, labor and land reform.

The Russian soldiers during World War I suffered the most from tsarist and capitalist collusion. By the millions, peasants and workers were shipped to the front lines of the war to protect the wealth and privilege of the elites. By the millions, they were slaughtered. This had the effect of galvanizing support for Bolshevism among the military rank-and-file, which empowered the Bolshevik movement with a virtually unlimited supply of troops with guns and military expertise to fight against anti-Bolshevik forces.

Systematic Terror Emerged from the Bottom

The systematic terror and purges in Russia did not start at the top. They started at the bottom as anarchy increasingly reigned throughout 1917. In fact, since February of 1917, pockets of violence were erupting all over Russia, but after the provisional constituent assembly (aka, the Duma) was dismantled in October, there was no effective governance system at all in Russia. Thus, there was no way to enforce law and order.

The chaos that ensued after October 1917 was dramatically amplified by the underlying anger and resentment that the majority of the Russian population felt toward the former tsarist regime and aristocrats that had supported the tsars for hundreds of years. The widespread poverty in Russia, which was directly caused by the negligence, incompetence and corruption of the tsars and their aristocratic patrons, left a permanent mark on the psyche of Russian society. This impacted the typical Russian mind in such a way that when they were on the verge of having a democratic socialist government in early 1917, they could not let go of their rage. Democracy was not enough. They wanted revenge. They wanted blood.

As a result, anarchy and violence erupted and factions emerged throughout the country, which were all vying for power. However, prior to that point, the country had been substantially governed by local councils called "soviets". These soviets were similar to city councils, which determine the basic parameters of local life.* But the soviets had no substantial influence over economic life because all the local economies were dominated by the tsar's tax policies, trade policies, labor policies, etc., which perpetuated the poverty and rage throughout Russian society.

After the collapse of the tsarist regime and interim government in October 1917, the chaos translated into a highly fragmented environment. Thugs in communities throughout Russia began to engage in all manner of criminal and violent activity. This led to widespread disruptions to all aspects of Russian life, including mass murders, frequent larceny, economic instability and general fear and anxiety throughout the population.

In fact, the infamous Cheka (a precursor to the NKVD and subsequent KGB) emerged from décentralisé villages as roving terror squads, not from any centralized power. They were violent groups of self-appointed law-enforcers who spied on and kidnapped people who were sympathetic to the provisional constituent assembly in October 1917. They looted churches and stores and any structure that contained items of value.

The Cheka claimed to be Bolsheviks because Bolshevism was en vogue throughout much of Russia at that time, but at the Cheka's inception in mid- to late-1917, they were generally ne pas guided by Lenin or any clearly defined ideology. They were guided by greed and lust for blood against the tsarist regime and the aristocrats that had neglected and oppressed the peasants and worker class for generations.

Mob justice ruled throughout most of Russia during 1917—1918. Makeshift tribunals and self-organized People's Courts delivered harsh and swift punishments to thieves and malcontents, especially if they were tsarist sympathizers, wealthy aristocrats or capitalists. On-the-spot trials and executions were common. By the end of 1917, most of the wealthy and aristocratic Russians were dispossessed of all their material property and wealth long before Lenin and the official Communist Party had any meaningful power or centralized authority.

From the perspective of the peasants and workers who had been neglected and oppressed for hundreds of years, they were justified in looting the plutocratic looters. "Loot the looters" was a common rallying cry. By the time Lenin started consolidating power throughout the country toward the end of 1918, most of the violent instruments of oppression needed to construct a nationwide system of terror were already in use throughout the country.

At that point, Lenin simply needed to organize sufficient resources and manpower to harness the revolutionary fervor and terror squads that already existed into a political and economic system of patronage. That enabled Lenin to channel wealth to the new ruling class: the emerging group of brutal local and regional commissars who were most effective at suppressing the anarchy.

The Rise of Lenin & Stalin

This was the environment in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks were trying to organize a functional system of governance that took into account all the historical traumas that the Russian people had suffered for hundreds of years, while also taking into account the fierce sense of independence that each of the community soviets felt. This was a very difficult task; and even though Lenin had autocratic tendencies, his actions and policy prescriptions were largely a response to the violent facts on the ground that were occurring from the bottom up.

Thus, Lenin was compelled to impose a form of dictatorship on the population because there was no other way to reign in the anarchy and violence that ensued after the fall of the interim government in October 1917. Unfortunately for Russia and many millions of humans later, Lenin died in 1924, which left a power vacuum that was filled by Joseph Stalin.

The Stalinist Era was arguably an inevitable consequence of centuries of autocratic tsarist rule and oppression in Russia. If the political establishment in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries would have been more responsive to the widespread desperation and wretched poverty of the Russian people, a democratic regime and constitutional republic would have been possible. However, in such an extremely hostile environment devoid of human rights and dignity, it was inevitable that a countervailing force (in the form of anarchy and revolution) would emerge to destroy the tsarist regime; and in its place emerged an even more destructive autocratic and oppressive regime in the form of Stalin's reign of terror.

Although Lenin was a relatively brutal autocrat in his own way, Lenin generally believed that Russia's salvation would be achieved by creating an enlightened population based on modern institutions and high-quality education. His admiration for the Paris Commune was based on his appreciation for democratic socialism, which places a high priority on civil rights. He believed, after an initial period of volatility, that his reforms would produce a stable political system that would enable Russia to modernize, benefit from the Industrial Revolution and distribute prosperity more evenly than existed during the oppressive tsarist regime. In other words, based on all his writings, Lenin appeared to be sincere in his desire to raise the quality of life of all Russians and he did not wield power for its own sake.

In contrast, Stalin was a bona fide sociopath and a bloodthirsty megalomaniac who was drunk on power from the beginning. He expanded state power far beyond anything Lenin ever imagined or desired. Stalin enthusiastically created the gulag system and murdered millions of humans. In Lenin's own writings before he died in 1924, he explicitly warned that Stalin's cruel personality and lust for power would lead to terrible outcomes.

Many political partisans today who are ignorant of history will never admit it, but Lenin was right about Stalin and many aspects of capitalism and Russian life. That's why Lenin has had such an enduring impact during and after his life.

Important Lessons

That's how the USSR was born, but what are the most important lessons from the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent failed communist experiments in Asia, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Cuba during the 20th century? I think these are the most important lessons:

  • Government cannot make all humans equal, but it can treat all humans equally. However, to achieve this in the real world requires constant and vigorous actions from grassroots organizations to continuously re-balance the power of corporations and wealthy people with the best interests of the general population.
  • Entrenched autocratic governments are extremely difficult to transform into democratic governments. The population develops a complex pathological dependence on their oppressors because only tyrants are brutal enough to restore order after violent anarchy erupts. This results in a cultural Stockholm Syndrome that is perpetuated by self-interested elites who exploit the mass pathology to preserve their own wealth and power. This is why the Russian people escaped the tsarist regime only to be trapped by the Stalinist regime.
  • In the best case scenario, governments can attempt to create the conditions that produce the highest quality of life for the largest number of humans by implementing economic, trade and labor policies that create institutional integrity and balance between capital and labor. (This topic is discussed in more detail in Capitalisme brisé.) This cannot be achieved through laissez-faire economic policies alone; it can only be achieved by a holistic and integrative approach that takes real-world socioeconomic realities into account. This is the best we can expect from imperfect human nature and imperfect human institutions.

For all the reasons above and many more, when our libertarian friends invoke the spirit of libertarianism to justify economic policies that handcuff the working class and decimate the middle class while empowering wealthy plutocrats, there are many logical reasons and historical precedents that suggest they are historically ignorant and deeply misguided. We have logical reasons to expect that puritanical libertarian economic policies dans le monde réel inevitably produce systemic poverty, violent revolutions, widespread destruction of wealth and capital and long-term mass misery. In fact, this is already happening today.

Those are some of the historical lessons and principles that guide our nonpartisan philosophy of Economic Humanism and our technological monetary and community governance system development at the Gini Foundation.


* Even though the tsarist regime had a strong, centralized grip over many aspects of Russian life, many other aspects of life were determined by the soviets (community councils) at the local level. From the perspective of the general population, this created a décentralisé social system within the context of highly centralized economic and legal systems. In this context, all the local soviets throughout the country had a strong emotional resistance toward any kind of centralized authority in their daily affairs. This decentralized culture of community governance could have been complementary to a democratic system of governance, but the simmering mass hatred and resultant anarchy toward the tsarist regime and its aristocratic patrons made this impossible.

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