Bolshevik Consolidation of Power

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How successful were the Bolsheviks in consolidating their power from 1917-1924? Was Communist ideology compromised during this period?

On 24-26 October, the Bolshevik Party seized power from Kerensky’s Provisional Government. This was achieved with surprising ease. Retaining their newly acquired power, however, was to prove difficult. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks proved successful in consolidating their power from 1917-1924, achieving this through a combination of pragmatic reforms and ruthless terror. This ultimately led the Bolsheviks far from their original goals and ideologies, and by 1924, the Soviet Union was a highly centralised one-party state.

Immediately after the October revolution, the Bolsheviks consolidated their power using a number of ideologically progressive pragmatic reforms that placated the masses. Soviet power rested almost entirely on popular support. Lenin implemented a number of political and social reforms attempting to create a government of the people. A new government, the Soviet of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) was created, with Lenin as chairman. The Land Decree turned the administration of the land over to village Soviets; the Workers’ Control Decree (14 November) granted committees of workers control of the running of factories and enterprises; and the Rights of the People of Russia Decree offered self-determination to the national minorities of the empire.

The government continued to stop the force of authority, abolishing the old legal system, the police, bureaucracy, conscription and discipline in the Red Army. The Bolsheviks also carried out the long-established socialist commitment to the emancipation of women, eradicating all forms of legal discrimination based on sex, legalising abortion and making divorce easier. The Marriage Code of 1918 gave married women complete legal equality with their partners, and a Special Woman’s Department was set up in 1919 under the direction of active Bolshevik feminist, Alexandra Kollontai. Workers conditions were eased as a maximum eight hour day for workers and a social welfare system was introduced, the army and schools were democratised and banks and industry were nationalised. These reforms were successful in consolidating the power of the new government during a period when the government was fragile and lacked a traditional machinery of power because they appealed to the people.

Bolshevik ideology was compromised by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on 3 March 1918, as the party forged an unwilling alliance with Capitalism. Lenin realised that Russia was too weak to face war with Germany and that without peace, the Bolshevik regime would not survive. The Great War had already been the catalyst in destroying Tsarism and the PG, and the Bolsheviks feared it would bring them down as well. The terms of the treaty were harsh: Russia lost 2 million square km of land and 60 million people, as well as 74% of iron ore and coal reserves. This led to a loss of popular support for the Bolsheviks, as the Russian people were horrified at the amount of territory lost and the perceived surrender to Imperial Germany. British historian Lionel Kochan writes that “Brest-Litovsk was denounced as a betrayal of the Bolshevik proletariat and of the socialist revolution begun in Russia”. Nonetheless, peace was vital to consolidating Bolshevik power, and as Lenin noted, “a disgraceful peace is proper, because it is in the interest of the proletarian revolution and the regeneration of Russia”.

Faced with the threat of Civil War (1918-1920), the Bolsheviks began to construct a new coercive machinery. The Red Army was transformed (largely by Trotsky, who became Commissar for War on 8 April) from a network of small, independent detachments into a large, united, disciplined machinery of power. Yet this was achieved by a break away from ideology, as the Bolsheviks implemented terrorist measures which anti-Communist historian Richard Pipes argues “exceeded...
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