Please note that this information was part of our old 'history classroom content' written in 2003, we have updated is slightly to meet the needs of the new curriculum but further updates will be made in 2010.
Differences between Capitalism and Communism
- System of government is democratic
- Property is privately owned
- Driven by free enterprise
- Wealth distributed unevenly
- Education and health care provided by private entities
- Freedom of the press Class distinctions: upper class, middle class and working class
- Focus is on the individual and his/her own progress in life
- System of government is totalitarian
- Property is owned by the state
- No free enterprise is allowed
- Wealth distributed equally
- Education and health care provided by the state
- Press controlled and owned by the state
- Classless society: all members of society are considered to be equal
- Focus is on the progress of the community as a whole
Following this Capitalism and communism have the following opposing sets of ideas:
The ideology of capitalism
- People need freedom
- When people compete against one another, they achieve greater things
- Some people have more than others because they make better use of their abilities
- Governments should not interfere with the rights of individuals to make their own living
- The government should interfere in the economy as little as possible
The ideology of communism
- People need one another
- When people work together as equals, they achieve greater things
- No-one should have more than anyone else - everybody's needs are equally important
- Governments should make sure that everyone's needs are being met
- There is central control of the economy
Totalitarian: A political system in which the government has total control over the public and private lives and actions of that state's citizens.
Free enterprise: The freedom for private businesses to operate for a profit without interference from the government.
Why did Communism start in Russia?
The start of Communism in Russian can be attributed to the harsh inequalities of 19th century life. Communism developed from the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and became popular amongst the workers of Russia due to the many difficulties experienced through tsarist rule.
It was an ideology that seemed to guarantee workers an end to hardships and a chance at political and social equality. It was for this reason that workers supported this ideology, that the tsarist regime was overthrown and that the course of Russia's history was changed for ever.
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Abdicate: Step down from the governing position; give up one's crown.
By the early 20th century, Russia was one of the most backward countries in Europe. It was still ruled by a Tsar under the Old Order and the majority of the population lived in poverty.
In 1905, an attempt was made to overthrow the Old Order but with limited success. Dissatisfaction escalated especially after the Tsar's decision to enter the First World War. The Russian army was ill prepared and the war effort made matters worse. In March 1917 workers riots forced the Tsar to abdicate.
The new Provisional Government proved unable to stabilise the country. Vladimir Ilych Lenin led the November 1917 revolution that replaced the Provisional Government with the communist Bolshevik Party.
The Soviet Union (as Russia came to be known) developed into one of the strongest nations in the world and entered into a protracted power struggle with America in the Cold War, as Russia challenged America and the rest of the capitalist world. This standoff ended in 1990, with the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The Old Order
Before the Revolution, Russia was a large empire under an absolute monarch, the Tsar. It was large in both land size and population. By 1914, Russia had a population of 165 million. It was a mostly an agricultural country, as industrialisation only began in the late 1800s and was slower to take place than in many other European countries.
Russian society was divided loosely into four groups. These were the ruling class (nobility), the upper class (clergy), the commercial or middle class, and the masses (workers and peasants). Tsar Nicholas II was an absolute emperor with unlimited political power.
The upper class owned much of the land but had no political say. There was no parliament, and political parties were not allowed. The press and books were subject to state censorship. This served to force all opposition underground and in the 19th century there were a large number of secret societies dedicated to political reform or revolution. The Tsar's secret police, the Okhrana, frequently infiltrated and spied on these organisations.
Serf: A medieval farm worker who belonged to his landlord and could not leave the land he worked on.
The majority of the Russian population were peasants who were uneducated, poor and powerless to change their conditions. The state and the higher, privileged classes exploited them harshly. A large portion of the peasantry was made up of serfs.
These were farmers or peasants who worked the land of the nobility and were the legal property of the landowner for whom they worked. They had no rights and were forbidden to leave their landlords, who could order them to do whatever he chose.
In the 1860s, Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs so that they became free peasants, and could move about in search of different work. Some stayed in the rural areas as farmers or peasants, but others chose to go to the urban areas to become wage labourers in the developing factories.
However, according to tradition, serfs had to be bought in order to free them. The state held that as it had freed the serfs, it had bought them from the nobility, and demanded repayment. For many serfs, this demand was impossible to meet. They never earned enough, and large numbers of them continued to live in desperate poverty. Without land of their own, they were still compelled to work for others to survive.
These figures from the 1897 census give a good idea of what the social structure in tsarist Russia looked like:
Ruling class (Tsar, court, government) 0.5%
Upper class (nobility, higher clergy, military officers) 12%
Commercial class (merchants, factory owners, financiers) 1.5%
Working class (factory workers and small traders) 4%
Although Europe had begun a process of industrialisation since the beginning of the 19th century, Russia lagged far behind. A big reason for this was the lack of available labour for factories. Serfs were still bound to the land and were therefore not free to be used as labour for the new industries. Only when the serfs were freed to move and work in the urban areas was real industrialisation possible. For this reason, Russia's economic development fell far behind the rest of Europe.
The Russian government took steps to catch up. Millions of roubles were borrowed from European banks to set up state industries, and a large number of British and French companies were invited to build and operate factories in Russia.
As the freed serfs provided an increasing pool of cheap labour for the factories, a small but significant working class began to develop. They lived in appalling conditions and were paid very little. Coupled with the oppressive rule of the tsarist regime, this exploitation created fertile ground for unhappiness and strikes.
The Tsarist regime was unable to deal with the pressures of popular dissatisfaction. The Tsar tried to divert attention away from internal problems by launching imperialist wars to increase Russia's size and influence. The first such war took place in 1904-1905 and was followed with another in 1914.
The wars were disastrous, and instead of distracting the masses, made them even unhappier with the Tsar. In both instances they propelled the country into revolution.
In the 1904-1905 war, Russia suffered a severe military defeat against the Japanese. The economy slumped, prices rose and labour unrest increased.
On 20 January 1905, a church-led procession of workers marched to the Tsar's winter palace in St. Petersburg to hand over a petition requesting amnesty for political prisoners, a meeting of the Constituent Assembly, and an 8-hour working day. Fearing an attack on the palace, guards opened fire on the marchers. Several hundred people were killed, and the incident became known as Bloody Sunday.
Duma: The Russian parliament called into being by Tsar Nicholas II after the 1905 Revolution.
Amnesty: Official pardon or forgiveness, usually for political crimes.
Following the Bloody Sunday massacre, civil unrest and strikes erupted throughout the country. In St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914), a soviet or workers' committee took power. In October, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to offer some reforms, which were laid out in the October Manifesto. These reforms included the formation of a parliamentary government along European lines, which would be called the Duma. The opposition then backed off.
However, Tsar Nicholas was not prepared to let go of power so easily. He constantly manipulated the Duma, disbanding it when it displeased him and gradually reduced the number of people able to vote until the Duma was comprised only of unrepresentative conservatives and nobles.
Nevertheless, between 1906 and 1911 there were some improvements. The economy grew and led to a gradual improvement of living standards and wealthier farmers were offered bank loans.
Yet most reforms brought about by the October Manifesto were quite short-lived, and overshadowed by the misery of Russia's experience of the First World War. War weary and hungry Russians were ready for the 1917 Revolutions. After the failure of the 1905 Revolution to bring about real reforms, it had become clear that there was to be no parliamentary road to freedom in Russia.
Opposition to the Tsarist Regime, 1881-1914
Although the Tsars of Russia ruled autocratically and political parties were not allowed, this did not prevent organised opposition to them. Repression in Russia simply forced political resistance underground.
The opposition to the Tsar can be divided into three main groups:
The peasant revolutionaries made up of the Populists or Narodniks, and the Social Revolutionaries who wanted power in the hands of the peasants.
The socialists or the Social Democrats who wanted power in the hands of the urban workers.
The reformers or liberals who wanted to keep the Tsar, with his power limited by elections and a constitution.
1. The Populists (Narodniks)
Russian Populism dates from the 1870s. It was a revolutionary movement that believed that the peasant mass of the population represented the future of Russia.
The Narodniks opposed both the Tsar and industrialisation, and rather than following the capitalist system of Western Europe, they wanted Russia to build a cooperative system based on agriculture.
The Narodniks were unable to persuade the peasants to adopt their revolutionary programme. As a result of the failure of their campaign, many Narodniks turned to violence as the only means of getting rid of the Tsar, which also failed.
2. The Social Revolutionaries
In 1902, the peasant revolutionaries formed another party, the Social Revolutionaries. They combined the violent actions of the Narodniks' extremist group, the People's Will, with their own efforts to mobilise the peasants into mass action.
With the slogan "All land to the peasants", they were hugely popular with the peasantry and became an important political force in the Russian Revolution.
3. The Social Democrats
The Socialists followed the ideas of Karl Marx. They believed that working class interests should guide society, and their goal was to overthrow the capitalist system for this purpose.
The socialists wanted workers to control the factories and share the profits fairly among themselves, rather than industries being owned by a wealthy minority who paid their labourers exploitative wages to make ever bigger profits for themselves.
The leading Russian socialist party, the Social Democratic Party, was established in 1898 under the leadership of George Plekhanov, the "father of Russian Marxism".
Serious differences soon emerged among members and in 1903 the party split in two. The majority group was the Mensheviks, and the minority group the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilych Lenin.
5. The Mensheviks
Literally, the majority. When the Social Democrats split in 1903, the minority group was called the Bolsheviks and the majority was the Mensheviks.
The Mensheviks believed that a socialist party should be a mass organisation open to anyone. They did not want push out the government by force, but thought that conditions of workers could be improved by driving changes within the existing state framework. In this way a socialist society would develop or evolve peacefully from a democratic republic.
6. The Bolsheviks
Literally, the minority. When the Social Democrats split in 1903, the minority group was called the Bolsheviks and the majority was the Mensheviks.
The Bolsheviks wanted to overthrow the government in order to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat (masses, the workers), a society where the masses (workers and peasants) held control.
The Bolsheviks were well organised, and Lenin was an outstanding spokesman. Despite this, they were caught by surprise by the March Revolution of 1917, which had begun spontaneously. Lenin and other leaders were overseas, and the Bolsheviks were unable to seize the opportunity to take power. By the time the next revolution broke out in November, they were prepared under Lenin's leadership to take the lead.
7. The Reformers (Liberals)
The middle class was not a strong force in Russia, but it had a strong enough political voice to put pressure on the Tsar. The policy of liberalism centred on achieving political and social change through reform, rather than destruction of the tsarist regime. The Tsar would still be in power but there would be a constitution and elected parliament to keep prevent tsarist rule in check. The parliament would share at least some of the political power held by the Tsar.
In 1902, the reformers came together to form a political party known as Liberation. This party helped form the Constitutional Democratic Party, or Kadets, in 1905. The Kadets became an important political force in Russia.
Failure of the 1905 Revolution
Despite the establishment of the Duma after the 1905 Revolution, the Old Order and the Tsar's autocracy remained. Although political parties that had been banned were acknowledged and newspapers allowed, real political power still lay with the Tsar. He manipulated the Duma to do as he wanted and so restricted any democratic power it might have had. It became clear that freedom would only be achieved through drastic measures, even violence.
Soviet: Originally striking/revolutionary committees elected by Russian workers during the 1905 Revolution. In 1917 a Soviet was again established by peasants, workers and soldiers to represent them in the Provisional Committee of the Soviet. Later years, the term was used to indicate a district controlled by an elected board or soviet. The whole state was seen as a union of these smaller soviets, and was therefore called the Soviet Union.
Between 1905 and 1917, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were politically active. They participated in the soviets, published revolutionary newspapers and developed their understanding of Marxist ideology. During the same period, the workers movement staged hundreds of strikes throughout the country. Peasants also began to engage in actions to lower tax and gain more land.
The lot of the masses had not improved after the 1905 Revolution, and increasing frustration led to the rise of dissidents' intent on overthrowing the Old Order. The Tsar's decision to involve Russia in the First World War was the last straw, and before the War was even over, the Russian Revolution broke out.
The First World War
In 1914, the First World War broke out. The Tsar believed that Russia's participation in the War would help to establish it as a great nation. Russia joined Britain and France in the war against Germany. More than 6 million soldiers were mobilised and the economy was reorganised to support the war effort.
Much of the food, clothing and livestock of the country also went to the army. For a short time, the war united the Russian people in a burst of patriotism (they called the First World War the Great Patriotic War).
Within 12 months the elation gave way to despair. Between 1915 and 1916 more than 4 million Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in action. Incompetent leaders, corrupt administration, shortages of weapons and other war supplies left the Russian army shattered. By 1917, the army was retreating from the advancing Germans and thousands of soldiers deserted their ranks.
The war aggravated the domestic problems of the country. Since most production was directed at the war effort, peasants and workers bore the brunt of the sacrifice. Livestock and grain grown by peasants was sent to the army, leaving them to go with very little.
Food was often difficult to find in the urban areas and working and living conditions were cruel. As food prices continued to soar, hunger and suffering grew. While the war had at first united the Russians, they now only craved peace. Unhappiness among the peasants and workers exploded and across the country strikes and riots were staged.
When the war broke out, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilych Lenin, had started an anti-war campaign. They saw that the workers and peasants had nothing to gain from the war. They called upon the masses to use Russia's involvement in the war as an opportunity to attack the Tsar.
By 1916, the campaign had gained substantial support. So, while the Tsar had entered the War to help build Russia's image as a Great Power, the war now spelled disaster for his rule. His unpopularity increased even further as he and his wife (the Tsarina) proved ineffective as leaders during the War.
Lack of Efficient Leaders
In the midst of the War, Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra (a German by birth) took some decisions that seriously damaged the position of the government. Firstly, the Tsar decided to take over military command himself, not realising the risk in being held personally responsible for Russia's defeat and suffering. Secondly, his military engagements meant that he left the Tsarina in charge of all other political affairs.
The Tsarina was widely unpopular. Not only was she German and therefore associated with Russia's great enemy in the War, but her close relationship with a bogus "holyman" Gregory Rasputin, of peasant origin, was feared and despised.
Rasputin was regarded as evil and immoral, following a religion of sinning in order to obtain forgiveness. Rasputin captured the Tsarina's blind devotion after proving capable of treating her only son and the crown prince and heir to the Romanov dynasty, Alexei, of his haemophilia, a hereditary disease where the blood does not clot.
The grateful Tsarina came to depend on Rasputin, who manipulated her to serve his own interests and political ambitions. This became disastrous after the Tsarina was left in charge of the country while the Tsar was leading the war effort. Rasputin proceeded to fire those he did not like and hire his own followers. Fearing his growing influence and the support he had from the Tsarina, he was murdered by two blood relatives of the royal family in 1916. Rasputin proved not easy to kill. He was poisoned, shot, beaten and eventually thrown into an icy river where he finally drowned.
It was clear that Russia lacked an effective leader capable of real reforms. Russia also lacked a leader who could obtain the support of the revolutionaries and the liberals, and stabilise the economy and the chaos caused by the disgruntled Russians.
The dissatisfaction that the Russians felt over their poverty, suffering and lack of political rights reached a climax during the years of the First World War. Overthrowing the tsarist regime seemed the only way out, and revolution was not far off.
The March revolution
Note: Some books refer to the February/October Revolutions of Russia while others talk about the March/November Revolutions.
The reason for the discrepancy is that Russia did not follow the Western calendar. The traditional Russian Christmas is celebrated in the first week of January. Before 1918, Russia followed the Julian calendar. In accordance with this calendar when the 1917 Revolution took place, it was February in Russia. So the February/October and March/November Revolutions are the same revolutions. The one is named according to the Russian and the other, the Western calendar. The important thing is to be consistent regardless of the calendar being used. This lesson refers to the March or November Revolutions.
Today, Russia also follows the Gregorian calendar that the West uses, and that we use in South Africa.
Although the climate for revolution was ripe by 1917, the March Revolution nevertheless took people by surprise. Not a single Bolshevik leader was in Russia when the revolt broke out, as many of them were exiled because of their anti-war campaign. Lenin himself was in Switzerland at the time.
Since 1916, workers had held strikes and protests against the Tsarist regime. In January a mass strike was planned to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the event that had sparked the 1905 Revolution. The following month more strikes were held, and the Tsar did not react, unsuspecting of the danger posed by them.
Later in March, when the strikes had become bigger and more widespread, he tried to suppress the protesters who were anti-war and rejected his rule. Confrontations with the police led to injuries and arrests. The Duma requested the Tsar to respond to the revolt with reforms, but their appeals were ignored. He dismissed the Duma, who refused to obey his orders.
The protests turned into full blown mutiny and one of Russia's biggest cities, Petrograd, was taken over by the resistance movement- which freed the political prisoners there. The Tsar lost all control of the country, and it became necessary for a provisional committee to rule Russia until a new government was established.
Two governmental bodies were put in place: the Provisional Committee of the Duma, and the Provisional Committee of the Soviet. The Duma represented the aristocracy (the conservatives), and they had to negotiate with the Tsar for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The Soviet represented the workers and soldiers, and was to look after the interests of these people.
There were serious differences between the two bodies, but they were forced to work together to prevent the Tsar from suppressing the revolution. Out of these two bodies, a first Provisional Government emerged in March 1917, was led by the Duma. This meant the end of the Tsar and the 300-year old reign of his family, the Romanovs.
The first stage of the Russian Revolution, namely the March Revolution, was over. The tsarist regime was overthrown, and in its place was a Provisional Government. The revolutionary parties (Social-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks) did not play a big role in the March Revolution. Those who did play a role were the conservatives, namely the Kadets and the Octobrists (those who believed in and supported the October Manifesto). This would mean that the conservatives would have a great influence in the Provisional Government.
The Provisional Government was instituted in March 1917, and consisted mainly of middle class liberals. It had no real power without the support of the soviets. The soviets comprised workers' strike and revolutionary committees during the 1905 Revolution, and after the March Revolution included all peasants, soldiers and workers.
By this stage, the soviets formed the majority of the Russian population, without their support the Provisional Government could not be effective. The Provisional Government had legal power but the soviets had the real political power. They stayed in the background, not taking obvious control and leadership of Russia but were able to influence and reject government decisions and actions.
At first, the Provisional Government enjoyed great support, especially among political groups like the Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, as long as the interests of the peasants, workers and soldiers were protected. The government was unable to keep this support, because they could not meet the most basic needs of the masses- peace, food and land.
The workers wanted bread, or relief from poverty, and the hunger that they had suffered for so long. The soldiers wanted peace, but Russia's involvement in the First World War continued. The Provisional Government failed to withdraw Russia from the War. Land and autonomy, the major concern of the peasants and minority groups, could not be addressed while there was a war effort.
The Provisional Government was also dragging its feet on the issue of elections for a Constitutional Assembly. Its role had been intended to be temporary, but the new leaders were no keen to lose this power.
These factors seriously damaged the Provisional Government's credibility, and they lost a great deal of public support. The Russian masses wanted someone who could solve their problems and provide peace, bread and land. A new leader promising them this arose. He was Vladimir Ilych Lenin and he became the first communist leader of both Russia and the world.
Lenin was a leader in the Bolshevik Party who was exiled to Europe during the March Revolution. He returned to Russia soon after the revolution and soon realised that the Provisional Government was ineffective and deaf to the people's demands.
In April 1917, the Bolsheviks, influenced by Lenin, withdrew their support from the government. Lenin then released several statements in which he revealed his aims. These 'April statements' would become his plan of action. He called for an end to Russia's involvement in the First World War, the disbanding of the Provisional Government and its replacement by the Bolshevik led soviets, as well as the release of land to the masses.
At first the reaction to him was negative, as many felt his aims were too radical. But Lenin's statement spoke to the hearts of the masses, and in promising to address the issues of peace, bread and land he gradually gained more and more support.
Lenin wanted the Bolsheviks to gain control of the great network of soviets all over Russia. The soviets were an established instrument of authority and power and if the Bolsheviks had control over them and their vast support base, the Provisional Government could be overthrown. Lenin was therefore in favour of a new revolutionary phase to force real transformation in Russia.
Meanwhile, the Provisional Government made some attempts at reforms. They invited the soviets to form a coalition with them, but the Bolsheviks refused to have anything to do with the government and the middle classes leadership. The Bolsheviks were nervous of being blamed for the government's mistakes, and this choice gained even more support for Lenin and his Bolshevik Party.
Coup: Short for Coup d'état, the violent and illegal seizure of power in a country, usually through revolt.
The months leading up to the November Revolution were marked by growing unrest. By July 1917, Bolshevik supporters were hankering for a revolution. They pressured the Bolshevik Party to move faster than planned, and in July they attempted a coup.
But the Bolsheviks had not gained enough support, and in June only received support from 105 of the over 600 soviets. The coup failed miserably, and the government reacted by imprisoning the Bolshevik leaders, whom they believed responsible for the coup. Lenin escaped imprisonment by fleeing to Finland.
The Provisional Government still refused to withdraw from the First World War, and the Russian army continued to experience defeat after defeat. In September, the conservatives staged a counter-revolution against the Provisional Government. Sensing the danger, the government asked the Bolsheviks for help against the counter-revolutionaries.
This was a significant event because the Bolsheviks could keep the moral high ground claiming that without participating in the ineptitude of the government, it had managed to prove it was needed. After this, support for the Bolshevik Party grew considerably.
Where they had been a minority party in June, they now gained the majority of seats in some soviets, most notably those in Moscow and Petrograd. From Finland, Lenin began to urge Bolshevik supporters to prepare for the next revolution. He was convinced that the time was ripe for a revolution and exploited the Provisional Government's mistakes and weakening position to gain support for the revolution.
Although the Party's central committee was not yet convinced, Lenin visited Petrograd on 22 October where he persuaded the workers to follow him. A week later, the Petrograd Soviet formed a military revolutionary committee, led by Bolshevik member, Leon Trotsky.
The Provisional Government saw this as a direct challenge to their authority, and acted against Bolshevik newspapers. The Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky, asked the Russian people what they wanted. The answer was peace, bread and land. But Kerensky had left it far too late.
On 6/7 November 1917, Lenin and his supporters staged a second revolution. Key state buildings were taken over, such as the Winter Palace in Petrograd where the Provisional Government was at the time. The government gave little resistance and was overthrown.
Lenin issued a proclamation declaring that Kerensky was no longer Prime Minister and that the Provisional Government was no longer in place. He promised to immediately begin to fulfil the nation's demands for peace, bread and land. He also promised that the soviets would govern, and so grant power to the masses.
The Aftermath of the Revolution
Shortly after the revolution, the Bolsheviks gained the majority of the seats in the main umbrella Soviet body. They refused to cooperate with the other parties and to share power with anyone else within the soviets.
Lenin announced that the new government would begin peace talks with Germany to end Russia's involvement in the First World War, and that the land of the Church and aristocracy would be confiscated and given to the landless.
When the new government was formed, the Bolsheviks had almost 62% of the seats. The other seats went to the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, and the leadership was shared between Bolshevik leaders Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. In less than a year, however, Lenin succeeded in consolidating power and seizing leadership alone.
Consequences and Importance of the Russian Revolution
After the Bolsheviks seized power in the November Revolution (also known as the Bolshevik Revolution), they began turning Russia into a communist state. When it became clear that the Bolsheviks had no intention of sharing power over Russia, anti-Bolshevik elements rose against them.
The result was a bitter civil war fought between the Red (Bolshevik) Army and White (imperial counter-revolutionary) Army. The Red Army eventually crushed its enemy, but only after more than 100 000 people had lost their lives in the war.
The Bolshevik Party changed its name to the Russian Communist Party and began to consolidate its power. Control was taken over other, much smaller states bordering Russia and the whole new state came to be known as the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) or the Soviet Union.
When Lenin died, he was succeeded by Joseph Stalin, who introduced several five-year plans to speed up the process of making the Soviet Union a true communist state.