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Lessons from Finland: Reply to Eric Blanc

July 11, 2017

By Duncan Hart. Eric Blanc’s article “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 revolution” raised a series of political arguments that would be extremely damaging for the Left today to adopt from the Finnish experience – primarily that the revolution vindicated the political strategy of Kautskian Social Democracy. Unfortunately Jacobin, which first published Blanc’s article, declined to publish my response, so I am posting it here so at least some comrades might read it.

Finland’s revolution of 1917-1918 deserves more attention than it has received from the Left. It provides  an example of a relatively developed society, both politically and economically, where a social revolution of the working class arguably progressed to a greater extent than any other society excepting Russia.

I hope for these reasons that Blanc’s recent article could be the start of a more in-depth attempt to grapple with the political questions thrown up by the experience of that revolution.

With that preface, I would like to raise disagreements with the political conclusions that Blanc draws out from Finland’s revolution.

Blanc’s biggest error is to suggest that the revolution “confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky; through patient class-conscious organization and education, socialists won a majority in parliament, leading the Right to dissolve the institution, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution.”

Blanc does conclude his article with a small paragraph highlighting some of the “limitations” of “revolutionary social-democracy,” represented by the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP), but overall argues that Finland’s revolution proves that “the Bolsheviks [were not] the sole party in the empire capable of leading workers to power.”

A group of Red soldiers after their execution at Länkipohja in the Finnish Civil War, 17 March 1918.

Far from the revolution being a vindication of the SDP’s strategy, the horrific massacre and political repression that followed is a searing indictment of the best form Social Democracy could take. If anything the Finnish tragedy is precisely an argument for the Bolshevik’s interventionist revolutionary Marxism in the negative.

Throughout this article I will be leaning heavily on Otto Wille Kuusinen’s pamphlet, The Finnish Revolution: a Self-Criticism, written in August 1918. Kuusinen was a leading theoretician of the SDP, chairman of the party from 1911-1917 and People’s Delegate for Education in the revolutionary government. With most other leading Social Democrats, he went on to form the Communist Party of Finland while exiled in the Russian Soviet Republic. A PDF of his pamphlet can be found here.

‘Left’ and Right within the SDP

Blanc gives the impression throughout his description of the revolution that the Social Democrats were divided between revolutionary and moderate wings. In reality the Party was split between the “Centre,” who were a majority in the leadership, and an openly revisionist Right that predominated in the parliamentary fraction. The Centre, as described by Kuusinen, “did not believe in Revolution; we did not trust it, nor did we call for it.” The defining feature of this political tendency was:

1) Peaceful, continuous but not revolutionary class war, and at the same time

2) An independent class-war, seeking no alliance with the bourgeoisie.

This was not an intransigent attitude of “through peaceful means if possible, but violent means if necessary,” to paraphrase James Cannon, but the adoption of a passive and fatalistic attitude to pushing forward the class struggle. To quote Kuusinen again:

The relations of a consistent social-democracy with revolution are just as passive as those of a tolerant historian in respect to the revolutionaries of past times. “The Revolution is born, not made,” is the favourite expression of social democracy.

The Centre and the Right of the Social Democratic Party were both bound by illusions in the possibilities of gradual, democratic change through the parliament.

This is not to say that a revolutionary left did not form during the revolution itself, but that it was organizationally weak, with little coordinated leadership. It was clear during the November general strike and aborted revolution that revolutionary sentiments prevailed amongst the leadership of the Red Guards and the Helsinki Workers’ Council. Both of these were newly established revolutionary institutions responsive to radicalizing workers. When the SDP leadership called off the strike, the Helsinki Workers’ Council summoned Oskari Tokoi (the Socialist Prime Minister during the coalition government) and told him to

Strike hard at the bourgeoisie. Institute censorship. Transfer industry to public ownership, the land and its appurtenances… now, if ever, energy and power are required of us… we cannot draw back, we must fight forward.

Similarly, railway workers invaded the offices of the SDP chairman (and another leader of the Centre) Kullervo Manner, and harangued him for calling off the strike. Such was the popular support amongst the advanced sections of the class for revolution that the Helsinki Workers’ Council was even able to maintain the general strike, at least in the capital, for another two days beyond its official end as determined by the SDP. The tragedy of these events was that working class political leadership was hegemonized by the SDP. With no independent revolutionary leadership, the momentum could not be maintained.

The group that was able to play the most important role as a revolutionary faction from outside the SDP was in fact those small numbers of Finns who had joined the Bolsheviks, such as Adolf Taimi and the Rahja brothers. These Bolsheviks were elected as leaders in the Helsinki Red Guard, which became a radical left pressure upon the SDP. After the end of the November general strike and prior to the January insurrection the Red Guard loudly called for revolution and even threatened to lead it themselves if the SDP leaders proved too cowardly.

SDP refusal to take power doomed the Revolution

In the lead-up to the October 1917 insurrection in Petrograd, Lenin warned his fellow Bolshevik leaders that at certain times, the question of political leadership and willingness to take initiative becomes pressing if the revolution is to triumph.

To refrain from taking power now, to “wait”, to indulge in talk in the Central Executive Committee… is to doom the revolution to failure.

The failure of the Social Democrats to push forward the revolutionary potential of the November 1917 general strike was what sealed the fate of the revolution of 1918. Blanc makes the correct observation that “historians are divided” as to whether the Revolution could have triumphed in November, given the invasion of the militarily overwhelming German army in March 1918. However what can be safely said was that in November the situation was much more favourable to the working class. Kuusinen in retrospect saw that refusing to establish workers’ power in November 1917 had only postponed the civil war:

Could we avoid an armed conflict? No! It was only postponed to a time when the bourgeoisie would be better prepared for it…

As Blanc says, by January the majority of Russian soldiers, who were sympathetic to the Finnish workers and whom the Bolsheviks had pledged to the uprising, had left Finland. Many Russian soldiers and revolutionary officers, such as Georgy Bulatsel and Mikhail Svechnikov[1], did fight on the side of the Revolution, but in November the revolutionary soldiers would have been a powerful bulwark against the Finnish Whites. Most importantly, the bourgeoisie was entirely on the defensive, whereas by January 1918 they had established a White Guard training camp in the north of Finland under Baron Mannerheim and were more prepared for civil war than the Reds.

German imperialism in March 1918 was free to extend its influence in Finland on the back of the predatory Brest-Litovsk treaty with Russia (signed March 3). In November, Germany was still tied up in negotiations for peace with Russia and would have been hard-pressed to intervene.

While recognizing that German intervention in March 1918 was a death blow to the revolution, every sign pointed towards the possibility of revolutionary success in November 1917. This possibility was dashed by the inaction of the SDP leaders.

Bolshevik vs. Social Democrat attitudes to insurrection

If the SDP was hostile to revolution as Kuusinen recalled (and every SDP leader at the time openly said), this leaves open the question of why they did lead an uprising on January 26.

The leadership of the SDP took up arms only as a last resort and under pressure from a largely politically disorganized and inchoate revolutionary section of workers. What made the SDP “revolutionary” was their lack of inclusion in the institutions of the state and the bourgeoisie’s burning desire to “stabilize” the country after the general strike. The agenda of the bourgeoisie would have required disarming of the Red Guards and violently crushing workers’ aspirations, while also threatening the established institutions of the SDP. On January 9, 1918, the bourgeois government voted to form a new “security force” to replace the SDP-dominated militia which had refused to crush workers’ actions. In reality this was the state legitimizing the already existing “Civil Guards” (or Butcher Guards as the workers called them) that the landowners and bourgeoisie had created out of their own ranks to break strikes. The Butcher Guards were named as the official state militia on January 26 in what amounted to a declaration of war against the Red Guard and workers generally. In this instance, even right-wing figures in the SDP like Tokoi or Wiik went along with the insurrection which they saw purely as necessary to “defend democracy.” To quote Kuusinen:

Thus the standard of revolution was in reality raised – so that revolution might be avoided.

This is clear from the proposed constitution of the “Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic[2]” put forward by the new SDP government. It did not talk about the need for the proletarian dictatorship over society but instead talked of enhancing democracy to enable the best possible field to advance the class struggle. Even in a civil war the SDP only spoke in terms of returning to “normal conditions.”

The necessity of revolution for self-preservation contrasted very strongly with the approach of the Bolsheviks. The urgency that Lenin brought to his arguments from late September 1917 onwards about insurrection built upon a recognition that a majority of workers had been won to the need for a soviet government. Crucially it understood the importance of providing a lead to workers, rather than being buffeted by external events, and the importance of action at crucial conjunctures. This was an activist conception of leadership.

Even during the general strike in Finland, it was the Bolsheviks who urged the SDP to break from its passivity and seize the moment. Lenin telegrammed the SDP leaders and urged them to “rise, rise at once and take power into the hands of the organized workers.” Dybenko, who was chairman of the Baltic Fleet sailors stationed in Helsinki, similarly urged insurrection and the Bolsheviks published a letter in the Finnish workers’ papers calling on them to follow their example.

Even after the general strike concluded, the Bolsheviks continued to put pressure on the SDP. Stalin, as Commissar of Nationalities, spoke to the national SDP conference on November 27, advising them to cast aside doubts about revolution, and imploring them to adopt “the tactics of Danton – audacity, audacity and again audacity!” It is emblematic that even the date of the insurrection itself, which the SDP leaders could not agree on, was set by the necessary timetable required to handle a shipment of 15,000 rifles and two million cartridges that the Bolsheviks agreed to send by train from Petrograd.

Lessons from Finland’s revolutionary tragedy

Blanc is right to stress that Finland in 1917-1918 represented a more advanced capitalist society than Russia. Politically, Finland had far more in common with Western societies of the time than with the Russian Empire of which it was a part. For this reason it is worth examination. But it would be wholly wrong to argue that Kautsky’s “revolutionary social democracy,” of which Blanc characterizes the SDP as an example, should be emulated.

The SDP, unlike its Western social democratic cousins, was placed in a unique situation that propelled it towards revolutionary action. The fact that the Finnish parliament had no power under the Tsar gave the SDP an opportunity to grow to a majority in the parliament without exercising responsibility for the capitalist state. In the context of the collapse of the repressive arms of the Tsarist state, rising worker militancy in Finland, and workers’ revolution in Russia, the bourgeoisie saw in the SDP a mortal threat to its own interests. The SDP proved that it was not up to the task of revolution when the bourgeoisie threw down the gauntlet.

For socialists today who are also operating in western democracies, we would do well to pay heed to the lessons that Kuusinen drew from the terrible defeat suffered by Finnish workers nearly one hundred years ago. This was the need for revolutionary leadership and organization, both to take advantage of a revolutionary crisis such as was presented in November 1917, but also to provide leadership in the civil war and to take the energetic measures necessary for victory. There was clearly a desire amongst Finnish workers to push the general strike into an insurrection. But without a revolutionary leadership that could challenge the SDP, their heroic efforts were stymied. In the aftermath of defeat, Kuusinen concluded that a revolutionary perspective must reject illusions in bourgeois democracy:

In a class society only two kinds of relations between classes can exist. The one a state of oppression, maintained by violence (arms, laws, tribunals, etc), in which the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed classes is confined to relatively pacific means (…); whilst the other is the state of open struggle between the classes, the Revolution, in which a violent conflict decides which of the two classes will in future be the oppressor and which the oppressed.

Political clarity on this question was bought at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of working class people and the criminalization of Finland’s revolutionaries for decades. The irony of suggesting that the Finnish social democrats represented a politics capable of leading workers to power as the Bolsheviks did in Russia is that Kuusinen and his comrades ended up agreeing with the Bolsheviks, as against their own practice.


[1] Lieutenant Colonel Bulatsel, like thousands of Russians in Finland, was shot after capture by the Finnish White Guards. His two sons were murdered in Viipuri in April 1918 in like fashion. He served as military advisor to the Commander in Chief of the Northern Front, Hugo Salmela, who led the defense of Tampere.

[2] This title “Socialist Workers’ Republic” was not the choice of the Finnish Socialists. Lenin insisted that it be the description of the Finnish state when the Soviet Republic signed a treaty of friendship with the Finns on March 1. The Bolsheviks desired workers of both states to have total political and civil rights in those of the other, but when the Finnish Socialists baulked at this, the Russians provided for Finnish workers to have political rights in Russia without reciprocation.

Duncan Hart is a socialist activist and member of Socialist Alternative in Australia. A response from Eric Blanc will be posted on July 14.

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