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The Greatest “Occupy” of Them All

Today, November 7, 2011, is the 94th anniversary of the November 1917 insurrection that gave all power to the workers’ councils in Russia. (The Russian for “council” is soviet.) That was probably the greatest “Occupy movement” of them all—at least to date. Imagine what the U.S. version will look like!

Below, on this anniversary, we reproduce some scenes from what we now can call “Occupy Petrograd.” J
And for those who have pointed to the very welcome entry of veterans (and some active-duty troops) into the U.S. Occupy movement, notice the descriptions of the soldiers and sailors in Russia almost a century ago.

The excerpts below are from Max Eastman's translation of History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky. (Our thanks to Labor Standard editorial board member Andy Pollack for sending out these excerpts from — and also for his comments, which we have paraphrased. Note that we made some small editorial insertions in Eastman’s translation. ) — George Saunders, co-managing editor, Labor Standard



In Smolny on the 25th of October the most democratic of all parliaments in the world’s history was to meet. Who knows—perhaps also the most important. Having got free of the influence of compromisist intellectuals, the local soviets had sent up for the most part workers and soldiers. The majority of them were people without big names, but who had proved themselves in action and won lasting confidence in their own localities. From the active army it was almost exclusively rank-and-file soldiers who had run the blockade of army committees and headquarters and come here as delegates. A majority of them had begun to live a political life with the revolution [of February-March 1917]. They had been formed by an experience of eight months. They knew little, but knew it  well. The outward appearance of the Congress proclaimed its make-up. The officers’ chevrons, the eyeglasses and neckties of intellectuals to be seen at the first Congress had almost completely disappeared.

A gray color prevailed uninterruptedly, in costumes and in faces. All had worn out their clothes during the war. Many of the city workers had provided themselves with soldiers’ coats. The trench delegates were by no means a pretty picture: long since unshaven, in old torn trench-coats, with heavy papakhi [tall fur hats] on their disheveled hair, often with cotton sticking out through a hole, with coarse weather-beaten faces, heavy  cracked hands, fingers yellowed with tobacco, buttons torn off, belts hanging loose, and long unoiled boots wrinkled and rusty. The plebeian nation had for the first time sent up an honest representation made in its own image and not retouched…
An influx of confidence had come with the news of the capture of the Winter Palace, and afterward with the coming over of the bicycle men to the insurrection. But both these facts still had to do with the mechanics of insurrection. Only now was its historic meaning becoming clear in action. The victorious insurrection had built under this congress of workers and soldiers an indestructible foundation of power.

The delegates were voting this time not for a resolution, not for a proclamation, but for a governmental act of immeasurable significance [the decree on peace, drafted and submitted by Lenin]. Listen, nations! The revolution offers you peace. It will be accused of violating treaties. But of this it is proud. To break up the leagues of bloody predation is the greatest historic service. The Bolsheviks have dared to do it. They alone have dared. Pride surges up of its own accord. Eyes shine. All are on their feet. No one is smoking now. It seems as though no one breathes. The presidium, the delegates, the guests, the sentries, join in a hymn of insurrection and brotherhood. “Suddenly, by common impulse,” — the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection — “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the ‘Internationale.’ A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child. Alexandra Kollontai rapidly winked the tears back. The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.”

Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!” The words of the song were freed of all qualifications. They fused with the decree of the government, and hence resounded with the force of a direct act. Everyone felt greater and more important in that hour. The heart of the revolution enlarged to the width of the whole world. “We will achieve emancipation...” [Eastman is translating from the Russian wording of “The Internationale.”—G.S.] The spirit of independence, of initiative, of daring, those joyous feelings of which the oppressed in ordinary conditions are deprived—the revolution had brought them now “…with our own hands!” The omnipotent hands of those millions who had overthrown the monarchy and the bourgeoisie would now strangle the war. The Red Guardsman from the Vyborg district, the gray soldier with his scar, the old revolutionist who had served his years at hard labor, the young black-bearded sailor from the Aurora—all vowed to carry through to the end this ”last and deciding fight.” [In Russian:  Eto yest nash poslednii i reshitelny boi.] “We will build our own new world!” We will build! In that word eagerly spoken from the heart was included already the future years of the civil war and the coming five-year plans with all their hard work and privation. “We have been naught. We shall be all!” If the actualities of the past have often been turned into song, why shall not a song be turned into the actuality of the future?

Those trench-coats no longer seemed the costumes of  galley-slaves. The papakhi with their holes and torn cotton took on a new aspect above those gleaming eyes. “The race of man shall rise again!” Is it possible to believe that it will not rise from the misery and humiliation, the blood and filth of this war?

The whole presiding body, with Lenin at its head, stood and sang with excited enraptured faces and shining eyes. The last sound of the anthem died away, but the Congress remained standing, a fused human mass enchanted by the greatness of what they had experienced and accomplished.