Lessons of the Finnish Revolution of 1917–1918 (Pt. 1)

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Commonly referred to as the Finnish Civil War, the Finnish Revolution of 1917–18 is a proud chapter in the history of the international working class. Tragically, despite the tremendous energy expended by the masses, the forces of counterrevolution defeated the working class and drained the revolution in blood. What lessons can we draw from this experience? In this three-part series, Socialist Revolution editor John Peterson provides a Marxist overview and analysis of these events.

Read the article on this topic: srev.org/finnish-revolution.

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[Song of the Finnish Revolution “Punaorvon Vala” plays]

The crisis of world capitalism is also hammering Finland, and the specter of the civil war looms large in the minds and consciousness of the country today—in literature, cinema, and popular culture generally. Many people are still keenly aware of whose great-grandparents fought on which side. It’s a stark reminder that even in “nice,” “peaceful,” social-democratic Nordic countries life Finland, the real face of capitalist terror can be revealed with blood-thirsty ferocity when the interests of private property are threatened.

[Theme music]

Hello everyone, and welcome to this episode of the Socialist Revolution Podcast. My name is John Peterson, I’m the Executive Editor of Socialist Revolution magazine, you can visit our website at www.socialistrevolution.org. Every episode we feature contributions and discussions on current events, history, and theory from a Marxist, class-struggle perspective, featuring revolutionary socialists from around the country and around the world.


Now, most people have at least heard of the revolutionary events that rocked Russia in 1917. But not so many people know the full extent of the chaos and class struggle that followed, or about the Finnish Revolution, which was intimately connected with the events in Russia. In this new series, based in part on an article I co-wrote back in 2019, we’re going to take a look at this incredible but ultimately tragic chapter in the history of the world working class.

Among the proletarian revolutions in the Nordic countries, the Finnish Revolution of 1917–1918 took the most “classical form,” went the furthest, and came closest to establishing a workers’ state. During the course of the revolution, the masses moved again and again to change society. But despite the tremendous energy expended by the masses, the leadership of the Finnish Social Democracy vacillated at every key juncture and ultimately betrayed the revolution.

They had a kind of fatalistic two-stage approach: first, a nice, pure capitalist bourgeois democracy, and at some point in the hazy future, a gradual transition to socialism. They sincerely believed that capitalism would somehow magically grow into socialism once they had won a majority in the bourgeois parliament. Therefore, according to them, there was no need to build a militant cadre organization in advance of the outbreak of revolution, in order to overthrow the state and institutions of the capitalist class and consciously replace them with a workers’ state.

But all experience shows that the working class cannot simply lay hands on the ready-made state apparatus of the bourgeois, which is a machine made for the rule of another class, a minority class of exploiters. As Lenin explained in his classic work, State and Revolution, what is needed is a different kind of state, a workers’ state, and with it, workers’ democracy. And that means workers’ councils, or soviets as they are called in Russian, and soviet power.

As we’ll see, the Finnish Revolution is a classic example of how betrayal is inherent in reformism, no matter how well-intentioned—which the workers of Finland had to pay for literally in rivers of blood. Because, after regaining the upper hand due to the mistakes of the workers’ leaders, the forces of counterrevolution physically annihilated the flower of the Finnish working class, contributing to the encirclement and isolation of the Russian Revolution, which helped lay the basis for the eventual rise of Stalinism. All of this had dire consequences for the world working class—and we’re still living with the repercussions today.

For a long time, all of this was hidden away, and Finland’s official history simply celebrated it as a war of independence against Russia. But the crisis of world capitalism we are living through today is also hammering Finland. These events took place only a couple of generations ago, and the specter of the Finnish Civil War again looms large in the minds and consciousness of the Finns today, in literature, cinema, and popular culture generally. Many people are still keenly aware of whose great grandparents fought on which side.

It is a stark reminder that even in nice, peaceful, social-democratic Nordic countries like Finland, the real face of capitalist terror can be revealed with bloodthirsty ferocity when the interests of private property are threatened. So we need to study these events seriously and draw the necessary conclusions.

In that spirit, this is also a perfect opportunity to analyze the position of the folks at Jacobin magazine. In recent years, they have published a handful of articles on the Finnish Revolution by the committed neo-Kautskyite reformist and architect of the so-called “dirty break,” Eric Blanc, who has also written a book on the subject. As we’ll see throughout this series, despite paying lip service to the class struggle, Blanc’s approach is almost entirely devoid of a class analysis, with only passing mention of the role of the masses, and no emphasis whatsoever on the question of leadership.

How one can understand the ultimate expressions of the class war—revolution, civil war, and counterrevolution—without a clear analysis of the class forces involved is beyond me, but Blanc and countless other so-called Marxists have literally made careers of it. Incredibly, these folks actually point to the Finnish Revolution as a shining example of how the fight for socialism should primarily be focused on bourgeois parliamentarism—not preparation for all-out class war.

But before we get to all that, let’s cover some basic background material to set the stage for the dramatic events of just over 100 years ago.


First of all, where is Finland?

If you check it out on a map, you’ll see that Finland is a Nordic country, sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, bordered by Norway in the far north, with its southern tip butting on the Baltic Sea across from Estonia. This places it in a key strategic position in Northern Europe—especially in relation to Russia, since the Gulf of Finland leads directly to the key city of Petrograd, now known as St. Petersburg.

By land, it’s just a couple hundred kilometers from Petrograd to the Finnish border, which is why Lenin and other Bolsheviks hid out in the Finnish region of Karelia after the July Days in 1917. In fact, Lenin’s classic work State and Revolution was finished while he was hiding in Finland.

It’s a real shame the Finnish workers’ leadership didn’t have a chance to read his book at that time—though I’m not at all sure they would have understood it. Eric Blanc has certainly read State and Revolution—but as we’ll see, he has understood less than nothing.

So, in 1917, Finland was part of the Russian Tsarist Empire. The Empire’s development and form was a classic example of uneven and combined development. Trotsky writes about this in works like The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects.

In short, tsarist Russia was a contradictory combination of serf-peasant-tributary backwardness—especially in the Eastern and Southern portions of the Empire—while at the same time, it was pressured and influenced by regions that stood on a much higher level of development, an almost Western European level. In some cases, it actually ruled over these more advanced areas directly. This was the case with Finland and the Baltic states, which had developed more along the lies of Germany or Scandinavia.

For centuries, Finland had been a predominantly agricultural country. In fact, as late as 1910, 70% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture. But its population was largely made up of small-holding independent farmers, artisans, and wage laborers. Unlike Russia, it had never been fully subjugated by feudal-tributary structures, though there were some important elements of this in some areas. Broadly speaking, the Southern areas of Finland were more industrialized, proletarianized, and left wing, while the North was more petty bourgeois, agricultural, and conservative.

Starting in the 1870s, Finland had seen a rapid process of industrialization, which accelerated in the 1890s. The development of the timber and paper industries put Finland’s economy well ahead of many other parts of the Russian Empire. With industry came the growth of the industrial working class, working for long hours with low pay and very few rights. For example, a law from 1865, which was still in effect in 1917, allowed employers to search the belongings of the workers if they lived in company housing.

But the young Finnish working class moved quickly to organize itself to fight for better living conditions. The early forerunners of the labor movement had taken the form of workers’ societies led by the liberals, but proper trade unions were now being formed and led several important struggles.

But trade union struggle is not enough under capitalism, and a political expression for the working class was also needed. To this end, the Finnish Labor Party was formed in 1899. At its 1903 congress, it was renamed the Social Democratic Party of Finland, the SDP, and adopted a program based on the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party.

It was organically linked to the Finnish Trade Union Federation, which was formally created in 1907, and affiliated with the Second International, known as the Socialist International. There had been individual party branches since 1898, and what would become the newspaper of the party, Työmies, which means “The Worker, had been launched in 1895. The SDP and the trade unions were an important counterweight to the bourgeoisie and the rich landlords, who lived on the backs of the masses.

Now, as a large and natural resource-rich country with a small population, Finland had been under the domination of foreign powers for centuries. It had never had a monarchy of its own—that is, until one was imposed briefly by the German imperialists when they occupied Finland in 1918. In true Game of Thrones fashion, they hand-picked a German prince to be the new ruler, to be titled: “Charles I, King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Duke of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North.”

Historically, Finland had been dominated by the Swedes, ever since the 12th century. This led to resentment against a Swedish elite that played a big role in the economic life of the country. But the country was handed over to the Russian tsar in 1809 by Napoleon—an example of how small nations are literally treated as pawns in the great games of the great powers.

For most of its time under Russian domination, it was known as the Grand Duchy of Finland, and it enjoyed fairly wide-ranging autonomy. It was allowed its own currency, postal system, local government, and even militias—as long as it paid what was due to St. Petersburg. So for many Finns, the historic enemy was the Swedes, who had oppressed them for seven centuries, not so much the Russians.

But under Tsar Nicholas II, there was a brutal campaign of Russification, which revived and fanned the flames of Finnish nationalism. This eventually pushed a section of the Finnish bourgeois into the arms of German imperialism, who cynically posed as friends of the Finnish people and as enlightened liberators against the tyranny of tsarist autocracy—a position the German social-democrats scandalously adopted during World War I.

1905: a dress-rehearsal revolution

But remember, before World War I and the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there was a dress-rehearsal revolution in Russia in 1905. This had a big and immediate echo within Finland, and the Finnish workers joined their Russian sisters and brothers and rose up in struggle. In November 1905, there was a general strike that started as a “national strike” with participation also from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements who saw an opportunity to break free from tsarism.

This also led to the formation of militias, called “national guards,” which initially also included the right wing. But the “national strike” movement quickly divided along class lines, and the right wing was ejected, leading to the formation of the first revolutionary militias—the Red Guards. These armed detachments were an organic expression of the will of the working class to change society, and for a time, had a mass character. In response, the bourgeoisie established its own “protection guards” as an alternative to the revolutionary Red Guards—the prelude to the first White Guards in history.

The movement continued into 1906, with further mutinies and strikes. The most well-known mutiny took place among Russian sailors stationed at the Viapori Fort, now known as Suomenlinna, just a kilometer off the coast of Helsinki. This was brutally suppressed by the right-wing White “protection guards,” and several Red Guards were killed. The SDP press condemned the Whites as “butchers”—which is exactly what they were.

Under all this pressure from below, the tsar sought to dampen the revolutionary mood and to cut across the movement by granting a few concessions. Keeping Finland in the Russian orbit was especially important, and the pressure from the workers there was particularly intense. So while in most of the Russian Empire the lid was put on even more tightly after the revolution failed to topple the tsar, in Finland, Nicholas was forced to grant broad autonomy and a constitution that even included universal suffrage, though there were still some property qualifications. The 1906 constitution included freedom of speech, press, and organization, as well as the formation of a Finnish parliament, known as the Diet, or Sejm (SAYM).

Given the objective conditions in Finland, and under the impact of these great events, the Finnish Social-Democratic Party grew rapidly, from 17,000 members in 1904, to a peak of 85,000 in 1906. In 1907, in the first elections under the new constitution, the Social Democrats won 80 out of 200 seats.

But the party—which, on paper, considered itself to be orthodox Marxist and a revolutionary party—was naive and beset by contradictions and organic illusions in class collaboration. As just one example, at their August 1906 congress, they denounced armed struggle and ordered the Red Guards to disband—on the pretext that they would be a threat to the legality of the party, which, to them, was all-important. Never mind that there was a very decent chance the tsar could be overthrown altogether!

They really believed that they could bring about socialism peacefully through parliament while preserving the trappings of bourgeois democracy. As in other countries, a bureaucracy had taken root at the top of the party, whose members lived lives far removed from those of ordinary workers. They had comfortable positions and were under pressure to accommodate themselves to capitalism. The parliamentary group, in particular, received very high wages.

So although the SDP adopted the rhetoric of militant class struggle and socialist revolution, the party developed in conditions of relative class peace and quiet until the outbreak of the revolution in 1917. The party tops came closer and closer to the bourgeois liberals and adapted themselves to a relatively comfortable, middle-class existence. They started looking more like a workers’ aristocracy than proletarian class fighters. In such conditions, the struggle to overthrow capitalism became a distant goal.

By contrast, the Russian Bolsheviks did not share a similar experience, and as a result, the revolutionary party was tempered in the fire of class struggle and the fight against vicious tsarist repression.

Eric Blanc sees this as a decisive difference between models of socialist struggle: that is, those who live in countries ruled by a bourgeois liberal democracy, versus those who live in countries ruled by an autocracy. To be sure, the tactics used by revolutionaries will necessarily be different in these different contexts, and we must always be flexible when it comes to organizational forms. But the basic strategy of class independence and irreconcilable class struggle remains fundamentally the same.

Blanc, however, sees this as a fundamental strategic difference, not merely a tactical difference, and makes a virtue out of the softness and class collaboration of the Finnish social democrats. Echoing their reformist illusions, he elevates the parliamentary struggle to something that it cannot possibly be, i.e., a road to socialism, because bourgeois parliamentary struggle is by definition limited by the parameters of bourgeois legality and property relations. This approach was a dead end for the Finnish social democracy in the early 1900s, and it’s doubly so today.

As could have been expected, the social reforms promised by Nicholas never materialized as the tsar stepped in to stymie any real change. This, along with the growing bureaucratization of the party, increasingly demoralized and frustrated the rank and file who saw few, if any, results as a result of their efforts. As we’ve seen so many times throughout history, the party was morphing into something more like an electoral apparatus, with the active membership decreasing by 40% between 1907 and 1910.

But with the outbreak of World War I, the tide again began to turn and the contradictions in society once again found an outlet through open class struggle, the unions, and the workers’ mass party.

World War I

When the war broke out in 1914, the Russian tsar sent 100,000 soldiers to Finland, who acted like an occupying force. And although no Finnish soldier participated in the war on behalf of the Russian Empire, parliament was suspended and both censorship and restrictions on the right to assemble were introduced.

The German imperialists exploited the aspirations for national independence of the Finnish people as a way to strike a blow against the tsar—and to gain access to the rich mineral and natural resources of the country. They also hoped to gain a key strategic position against Russia, because, as we’ve seen, the Gulf of Finland is the gateway to Petrograd.

Among layers of the Finnish bourgeois and petty bourgeois, a movement called “the activists” was launched. These “activists” mobilized some 1,500 “volunteers,” consisting mainly of nationalist university students and sons of the upper middle class, who traveled secretly to Germany for military training. There, they were incorporated into the German military as the 27th Jäger Battalion, which was established in 1915.

The idea was to eventually provoke an anti-Russian popular uprising in Finland. But wartime demand for Finnish exports to the rest of the Russian Empire meant huge profits for the industrialists and virtually no unemployment for the workers. Despite tsarist oppression, the big Finnish capitalists and landlords were loyal, above all, to their own narrow class interests.

The only force that could win out Finnish independence in practice was the working class. This would be shown by subsequent events, when the revolutionary struggle of the Russian workers and the Bolsheviks finally gave Finland the opportunity for full national independence.

Now, despite its backsliding in the previous years, the SDP was still a considerable force. It had 51,000 members, 890 Workers’ Houses, which were like social clubs, 46 choirs, and 71 orchestras. It published the daily paper Työmies and several other periodicals, as well as substantial press for the trade unions.

In the summer of 1914, the main parties of the Second International had buckled under the pressure of “their” bourgeoisies and voted in favor of the imperialist war. The massive workers’ parties of Germany and France, built up painstakingly over decades, had capitulated to national chauvinism. This led to widespread collapse, confusion, and demoralization in the international workers’ movement.

To its credit, the Finnish SDP took a clear anti-imperialist stance and sent a representative to the Zimmerwald conference. The Zimmerwald left, organized around key figures like Lenin and Trotsky, argued in favor of using the inevitable crisis that would emerge as a result of the imperialist war, to transform it into a civil war and the fight for socialist revolution. But the leadership of the Finnish party, which had more of a pacifist outlook, was far removed from these revolutionary conclusions.

With the build up of industry due to the war economy, new layers from the countryside were drawn into capitalist production and became part of the Finnish working class. There was an influx of members into the trade unions and SDP, starting in December 1915, who were fresh and more willing to fight against the bosses. These new members of the proletariat entered political life unburdened by the traditions of the past, and were less willing to accept the compromises of the leadership.

Despite low unemployment, Finnish workers faced tough conditions during the war. The rise of inflation meant that food prices rose sharply, and food shortages produced longer food lines. The capitalists, on the other hand, were making a killing during the war through massive exports. So while the rich were getting richer, inflation meant that the Finnish working class saw their real wages drop by a third. But instead of organizing the workers to fight back, the trade union bureaucracy banned strikes during the war, condemning workers to increasingly unbearable conditions.

On the eve of 1917

As the events of 1917 approached, Finland was one of the most economically advanced countries in the entire world. The population had nearly quadrupled since the Russians had taken over a little over a century earlier. It had a compact but powerful and well-organized working class. Nearly half a million out of a population of three million were industrial proletarians, and there was also a large layer of agricultural day-laborers. It had a high level of industry, education, and culture. The objective conditions for socialism were about as good as you could find in the world at that time.

In the 1916 elections, the Social Democrats won an absolute majority of 103 out of 200 in the Sejm, which became known as the “Red Diet.” They voted in the eight-hour day and a series of progressive social reforms. These basic reforms were all well and good, and should be celebrated, but since the levers of the state and the economy remained firmly in capitalist hands, this can hardly be considered socialism.

Jacobin, on the other hand, points to the SDP’s success as a parliamentary party as a model for socialists today. They are pragmatists and empiricists, and view things in isolation, not as contradictory and interrelated processes. They single out facts that support their preconceptions instead of analyzing phenomena in an all-sided way. The fact that the SDP’s illusions in class collaboration and a peaceful, parliamentary, road to socialism led to one of the most consequential defeats of the world working class is an inconvenient detail that can be ignored.

As we’ll see, this doesn’t mean that the workers couldn’t have taken power peacefully on at least two occasions. But this would only have been possible on the basis of absolute class independence, political clarity, and decisive action—which is the very opposite of what the SDP leaders had to offer.

Unlike the wavering and consistently inconsistent Social Democrats, the Finnish bourgeoisie had no illusions in parliamentary democracy or national independence in the abstract. They weren’t about to let little details like legality stand in their way. Like all capitalists, they were concerned above all with their right of property—which was under serious threat by the “Red Diet” and the awakening working class.


[Theme music plays]

That’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening! In the next part of this series, we’ll explore the events of 1917 in more detail, as events built up to the outbreak of civil war.

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