Lessons of the Finnish Revolution of 1917–1918 (Pt. 2)

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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]

Power was literally in the hands of the Finnish workers in late 1917. The armed workers had the upper hand on the streets, in the factories, and had broad support within the population. Had the leadership recognized this, they could have passed a decree proclaiming a workers’ republic. Instead, the Social-Democratic party leaders threw all their weight into derailing the mass workers’ struggle into constitutional channels.

[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.


In the first episode of our series on the Finnish Revolution, we looked at the historical background and context for the events in Finland under the impact of the 1905 revolution and World War I. We also touched on the role of the reformists, whose timid, class-collaborationist policy laid the basis for the eventual decimation of the Finnish working class—a policy still advocated today by the neo-Kautskyites at Jacobin magazine. We’ll delve deeper into all of this in this episode.

1917 continued

Now, as in Russia, there were two revolutions in Finland in 1917, one in February/March, and another in October/November. In February 1917, according to the old-style Russian calendar, the rotten, 400-year-old tsarist regime came tumbling to the ground.

The revolution started with women textile factory workers in Petrograd on March 8, according to the new-style calendar, which was International Working Women’s Day. The burden of the war was felt most acutely by women, who saw their husbands, brothers, and sons slaughtered on the front lines, while the cities starved. Working women took to the streets and appealed to other factory workers to join them, in what quickly became a revolutionary movement, drawing in the whole working class.

Around 90,000 participated on the first day, and the movement grew quickly, spreading to both Moscow and the provinces. Over the next five days, the movement took on an insurrectionary character, as mutinying soldiers also joined the strike. The workers, peasants, and soldiers began creating their own forms of class rule. The Russian workers’ councils—the soviets—represented a form of dual power that challenged the rule of the landlords and capitalists and their state. In an attempt to reassert control, the Russian bourgeois set up a provisional government that was supported by the so-called “socialist” leaders of the soviet.

In Finland, the first sign that things had been upended in the Tsarist Empire was that trains stopped arriving from Russia. But the news soon spread: there’s a revolution in Russia! Revolutions don’t respect borders, and the February Revolution got a huge echo among Finland’s exploited masses. The tsarist regime that had controlled them for over a century was falling apart and enormous new possibilities were opening up.

The Finnish workers went on strike and swarmed onto the streets. They went from one mass meeting to another, and demonstrations continued nonstop. They called for a general strike and began implementing the eight-hour working day. There were mass meetings up and down the country, demanding the removal of unpopular state bureaucrats, and that food should be requisitioned and redistributed to the people, overseen by local popular committees.

With the disintegration of the tsarist state, there was no one left to defend the old order. The Finnish military had been abolished by the tsar in 1901, and now the tsarist police was in disarray. The sailors of the Russian Empire’s Baltic fleet were among the first to move, mutinying against their hated overseers. Fifty or so of the most hated officers were executed and thrown overboard, while the sailors raised red flags on the ships and arrested a number of key representatives of the old regime. In May, the Tsentrobalt soviet was set up, which took complete control over the Baltic fleet. Along with the sailors, the soldiers were also radicalized and taking things into their own hands.

All of this inspired the workers to set up their own armed Red Guards, as they had done in 1905. Across Finland, militias were formed, and these began maintaining order on the streets. And much to the dismay of the ruling class, they refused to break up strikes. The Finnish workers followed their Russian class brothers and sisters and spontaneously set up soviets in Helsinki, Vyborg, and Oulu. By March 17, 1917, the Helsinki Soviet was in effective control of the capital.

The role of the reformists

Unsurprisingly, however, given their gradualist, parliamentary illusions, the SDP leaders didn’t lift a finger to organize or coordinate the movement. Quite the opposite—they condemned the workers’ actions and mass meetings. These incorrigible reformists couldn’t draw the necessary conclusions from the experience unfolding all around them—starting with the fact that the workers had effectively already seized power.

The SDP had a crushing majority of support in society, which they could have used to establish a genuine workers’ state, based on the experience of the Paris Commune. They could have linked up with the Russian masses in their ongoing revolution and served as a conduit for the revolution into Scandinavia and Germany. All they had to do was raise their little finger. Instead, just two days after a April 6 declaration proclaiming the Helsinki Soviet as the highest authority in the land, they unceremoniously handed this authority over to a bourgeois provisional government. How was this possible?

For starters, the SDP leadership was way out of its depth, hamstrung by their class-collaborationist theory and outlook. They had never understood the role of the workers’ councils, and their schematic, utopian vision for Finland did not include a workers’ government based on organs of workers’ power. They had not absorbed the lessons of the 1905 Revolution, or followed the advanced debates that had been taking place in the intervening years in the Russian Bolshevik Party. They were frightened of their own shadows, and instead of working to generalize and spread the councils across Finland, they did the opposite and tried to slam the brakes on the movement.

They were under intense pressure from hostile classes with irreconcilable differences: the proletariat and the poor peasants on the one hand, and the bourgeoisie, big landlords, and imperialism on the other. Within the party, this took the form of a struggle between the right-wing “socialists” who had linked up with the liberals, and the increasingly revolutionary left wing that emerged as a spontaneous current from below.

This was all mediated by those who stood at the so-called “center,” who believed that “party unity” in the abstract was the main goal—not political clarity and class independence. They couldn’t understand that there is no strength in numbers if the numbers involved include and are ultimately dominated by an alien and enemy class. Leaders like Otto Kuusinen, who were eager to paper over the cracks in the party, ended up merely giving revolutionary cover to the party’s right wing, and through them, to the counterrevolution.

As for Eric Blanc, he believes that:

The costs in terms of revolutionary purity were outweighed by the benefits of practical political effectiveness, since hyper-factionalism or a fractious organizational split within the SDP would likely have marginalized the radicals, disoriented most workers, and paralyzed the socialist movement’s forward march. This belief that a united party was needed to lead Finland’s workers to power was eventually proven right.

Only an unapologetic revisionist renegade and Karl Kautsky fanboy could draw such an ahistorical, mechanical, and ridiculous conclusion—that the pursuit of an unholy cross-class alliance in Finland in the middle of a revolution was “proven right.”

As would happen again in Germany and elsewhere, the Social-Democratic party leaders threw all their weight into derailing the mass workers’ struggle into parliamentary and constitutional channels. In an attempt to get the movement under control, the SDP explained that workers should not form Red Guards, but instead struggle through the already existing party and trade union organizations. So instead of consolidating a workers’ government, the SDP entered into a coalition with the bourgeois parties. Only two in the leadership voted against, including the centrist Otto Kuusinen.

The new Senate was led by Antti Tokoi from the SDP, and consisted of six socialist and six bourgeois politicians, even though the bourgeois represented a tiny fraction of Finnish society. This kind of “unity” is the epitome of class collaboration. Unsurprisingly, the new government issued appeals against “anarchy” and in favor of “order.” No matter what lofty ideals they may have thought they were adhering to, the SDP leaders were objectively propping up the old order.

Ostensibly a party of revolution, they ended up serving as a pillar of Finnish capitalism and landlordism during these crucial revolutionary weeks. Their vision was of a bourgeois-liberal parliament ruling over a capitalist Finland, instead of having a tsar ruling over a capitalist Finland. Like today’s liberal socialists—people like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Eric Blanc, who are socialists in name but indistinguishable from liberals in practice—they had no confidence in the working class and were terrified of what would happen if the workers’ actually ran society.

The tragedy is that the March revolution in Finland could have resulted in a peaceful seizure of power by the working class. Instead, the policies of the leaders sowed confusion among the workers and gave the enemy class time to regroup. As we’ll see, far from stabilizing the situation, as the SDP leaders had hoped, they only contributed to destabilizing things even further.

The power law and the provisional government

The capitalists had been given some breathing room. But they had no trust in the SDP or its confused leaders. Instead, they forged an alliance with Kerensky’s Provisional Government in Russia, which now formally governed Finland, having taken over from the tsar.

To begin, Kerensky refused to recognize the Finn’s right of national self-determination, and would not grant them their independence. This would have sent a dangerous message to other oppressed peoples in the “prison house of nations” that was imperial Russia. Kerensky also didn’t want to piss off his pals, the Allies, i.e., French and British imperialism, who had lots of colonies of their own, and on whose side Russia’s armies were still fighting against the Germans.

During the summer of 1917, the SDP held a party congress, which saw a struggle between the left and right wings of the party. The left-wing proposals to push for a general strike were defeated, and instead, the party adopted Finnish independence with a bourgeois parliament as its main programmatic goal. Remember, the SDP had a majority in the Finnish parliament, known as the Diet, or Sejm, and on July 18, it adopted the valtalaki, or “Power Law,” which amounted to a unilateral declaration of independence.

The response of Kerensky’s so-called “democratic” Provisional Government was to shut down and lock up the Finnish parliament, and to threaten to occupy the country if it continued down this path. When the SDP parliamentarians tried to enter the parliament building at the end of August, they were prevented from doing so by Russian troops, on the order of the Kerensky government. Having disbanded a parliament that was “too red” for his liking, the “social revolutionary” Kerensky announced that new elections would take place in Finland in October.

The SDP declared the elections illegal, but participated in them anyway. Given the mood in society, when the elections were held, the Social Democracy increased its total votes by nearly 20%. But they actually lost representation, falling from 103 seats to 92, out of 200 seats in total, due to electoral maneuvers and blatant fraud by the bourgeois parties. During the civil war that followed, many boxes were discovered filled with votes for the SDP that had been hidden away and never counted.

The ruling class had succeeded in reasserting its control of parliament, and the Social-Democratic leaders had no intention of doing anything about it—unless respecting the election results counts as “doing something.” This is where parliamentary cretinism gets you—especially in the middle of a revolution!

But parliamentary control was hardly enough for the ruling class, who were not at all naive about these matters. They had been preparing to settle accounts with the Finnish workers and the Bolsheviks for a long time, and were actively preparing for civil war.

The question of bread

Revolutions are contradictory processes, with sharp ebbs and flows, with many currents and eddies churning in the waters of the broader revolutionary wave. And whether there is a revolution going on or not, people need to eat, and in the economic and social dislocation caused by the world war and revolution, the question of bread quickly came to the forefront in Finland and beyond.

All the big orders from the Russian war industry had been canceled by the new provisional government, and tens of thousands of Finnish workers were thrown out of their jobs. Grain imports plummeted. This was a big problem in a country with a food sector specialized in dairy products, which imported 60% of its grain. The Finnish bourgeois also purposely and artificially exacerbated the shortages and sabotaged the economy in the industrialized areas, to literally sap the strength of the working class. With essential supplies disrupted by the growing chaos in Russia, famine began to stalk the poor.

As the workers’ paper Työmies reported:

A large part of the working population is already suffering from hunger. In Tampere, for the last couple of days, there has been no bread available. In Viapori for the last week or so a large part of the population has not received any bread on their ration cards. In Turku the situation is quickly becoming the same. The same is true for Pori. In Helsinki it is better; there is still bread for another month, but how things will develop after that is hard to say.

By the beginning of August, workers were taking matters into their own hands when it came to ensuring everyone was fed. They not only organized mass meetings and strikes, in several cases, they expropriated stores of bread and butter, which were then handed out or sold at a reduced price. At the same time, the membership of the trade unions quadrupled to 160,000, and nearly every organized worker in the country participated in a strike during the course of the year. In total there were 500 strikes with 140,000 participants.

The bourgeoisie, increasingly alarmed by the growing revolutionary mood, accelerated their plans for a counteroffensive. After the fall of the tsar and the disorganization of the tsarist army, right-wing militias had been secretly training around the country. Soon thereafter, the first White Guard in history was openly formed, in Finland, a revival of the “Protection Guards” from 1905. Their aim was to ensure that bourgeois law and order were maintained.

During a meeting in the Stock House in Helsinki, representatives of the ruling class agreed that two million markka would be provided to train and arm these shock troops of reaction. On October 31, the Whites received a big shipment of guns from Germany.

In many areas, the Red Guards had not seen any activity since May or so, but following a secret meeting in Tampere in October, the trade-union confederation issued an appeal for workers to join. In November, the SDP belatedly did the same. Everything was being prepared for an open confrontation between the classes.

The November Revolution

On November 7, according to the new calendar, the Russian workers took power. Led by the Bolshevik Party, the October Revolution achieved a resounding victory with almost no initial resistance from the forces of the collapsing old order. The Bolsheviks urged the Finnish workers to do the same.

Unfortunately, their leaders were nowhere near as audacious or farsighted as Lenin and Trotsky, and it was unclear who exactly was running the show in Finland. With no provisional government left in Russia, the Finnish bourgeoisie again had to look elsewhere for support if they were to prevent their own workers from taking power.

First, they asked their historic enemies the Swedes to invade them. So much for the nationalism of the Finnish bourgeois! However, although they passed along arms and supplies and let hundreds of “volunteers” cross the border to join the Whites, there were big movements by the workers in Sweden that cut across the government’s plans for direct intervention.

So, who better to ask for help than the German imperialists who were hell-bent on smashing the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks? Again, so much for Finnish sovereignty! As Kuusinen wrote:

German imperialism gave ear to the lamentations of our bourgeois, and gave itself out as ready to swallow up the newly acquired independence, which, at the request of the Finnish Social Democrats, had been granted to Finland by the Soviet Republic of Russia. The national sentiment of the bourgeoisie did not suffer in the least on this account, and the yoke of a foreign imperialism had no terrors for them when it seemed that their “fatherland” was on the point of becoming the fatherland of the workers. They were willing to sacrifice the entire people to the great German bandit provided that they could keep for themselves the dishonorable position of slave drivers.

To prepare the ground for all this, the Finnish bourgeois used their newly won and illegitimate parliamentary majority to try to set up a dictatorship, with the reactionary Pehr Evind Svinhufvud at its head.

The workers responded to this with a general strike and established a Revolutionary Central Council to serve as its leadership. They immediately sent representatives to meet with the Bolshevik leaders in Russia, and Lenin again urged them to take power. The night before, Finnish workers had received guns from Russian troops stationed in the country, and in mass demonstrations on the following day, 3,000 armed workers marched through the streets.

As we’ve seen, Red Guards had been formed, recruited out of the unions and Social-Democratic workers’ clubs, including many women, and joined by some of the Russian soldiers stationed there. The main public buildings were occupied, barricades went up, and bloody street clashes took place in Helsinki and elsewhere as the Whites tried to put down the workers in blood—but the Whites were thrown back. Local strike committees and Red Guards quickly took control of the country. They disarmed and jailed local authorities and state representatives, and took over the food supply and communications.

Just as in March, there was very little organized resistance from the forces of reaction. The Whites represented just a handful of the population and had not had sufficient time to prepare for the next wave of the revolution. In contrast, the entire Finnish workers’ movement was mobilized in the streets, ready to respond enthusiastically to a call to establish a workers’ state. Power was again within reach. All it would have taken was for the leaders of the workers’ movement to say the word.

As Trotsky explained in his classic work on the Russian Revolution, Lessons of October:

The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when the maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are, of course, referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself.

During a revolution these processes unfold with lightning speed. The art of revolutionary tactics consists in this: that we recognize and seize the moment when the combination of circumstances is most favorable to us. Such a situation had clearly arisen in Finland. But the SDP leaders were chained to their gradualist, reformist conceptions and were not ready to follow in the footsteps of their Russian counterparts. They were not ready to shed their illusions in bourgeois democracy. As Kuusinen aptly put it after the fact:

Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to maneuver round this turning point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution … We did not believe in the revolution; we reposed no hope in it; we had no wish for it.

The general strike called off

Members of the conservative wing of the Revolutionary Central Council thought things had gone too far and they denounced the general strike and resigned from the Council. Under this pressure, on November 19, a motion to take power was defeated in the Council by a vote of eight to eight—with the right-wing chairman casting the decisive vote. The misnamed Revolutionary Central Council resolved that “since so large a minority dissented, the Council cannot on this occasion begin taking power into the hands of the workers, but will continue to act to increase pressure on the bourgeoisie.”

The decision was taken to call off the general strike, with the incomprehensible slogan: “The strike is canceled, but the revolution will continue.” This shortsighted move meant relinquishing yet another perfect chance to seize power peacefully. This was a tragically lost opportunity that had nothing to do with the working class and its consciousness, and everything to do with the kind of leadership that stood at the head of the workers’ movement.

Echoing Trotsky, the historican Hannu Soikkanen later wrote:

There can be little doubt that this was the best moment for the workers’ organizations to seize power. The pressure from below was enormous, and the will to fight was at its greatest … The general strike convinced the bourgeoisie, with few exceptions, however, of the acute danger of the socialists. They used the time until the outbreak of the open civil war to organize themselves under a firm leadership.

When this decision was presented in Tampere, the speakers were booed off the stage and nearly ejected from the meeting. In the towns of Kotka, Lahtis, and Lovisa, the speakers were physically thrown out of the meeting. The assurance that “the revolution will continue” was met by angry questions from the audience: “By whom?!” I mean, how is it possible to “increase pressure on the bourgeoisie” if you relinquish one of the workers’ most powerful tools, the general strike? In Kotka, the workers passed a resolution that urged “power to the workers—the dictatorship of the proletariat has to be established!”

An extraordinary party congress of the SDP, called for November 25–27, again saw sharp struggles between the left and right wings of the party. The left argued for the completion of the revolution and the seizure of power, while the right argued in favor of a coalition government. This deadlock was resolved by a clever formula presented by the party leader Otto Kuusinen: There was to be both an armed revolution and a coalition government—at the same time!

Now, the arming of the workers and the indefinite general strike are among the main weapons in the arsenal of the working class in a proletarian revolution. To start down this road, only to recoil in fear of the consequences, is the surest way to demoralize the masses. It amounts to playing with revolution, without taking the necessary steps to complete it. Lenin always warned against this. As we have seen time and again over the course of the last century: you can’t make half a revolution! This was one of the most egregious reformist betrayals of a workers’ revolution in the whole of history. These people could not understand that democratic rights and conquests are merely means to an end—not the end in itself.

Power was literally in the hands of the Finnish workers in late 1917. The armed workers had the upper hand on the streets, in the factories, and had broad support within the population. Had the leadership recognized this, they could have passed a decree proclaiming a workers’ republic. They could have mobilized and armed the entire working class, joined up with the Bolsheviks in Russia, and shown that they were ready to defend the workers’ interests and state with force if need be, not just parliamentary decrees. There is no question that the workers would have followed them enthusiastically and it would have been game over for capitalism in Finland.

Instead, the Social Democracy cut yet another bargain with the liberals and agreed to a “compromise” bourgeois “democratic” government—to be headed by the very same Svinhufvud who was originally going to be imposed by the capitalists as a dictator! As a result, the SDP succeeded only in giving the ruling class yet more time to organize a bloody counterrevolution—and what a bloody counterrevolution it would be. As Anthony Upton put it, “the Finnish revolutionaries were in general the most miserable revolutionaries in history.” That’s 100% correct!

Incredibly, however, after quoting these very lines by Upton, Eric Blanc adds that:

Such a claim—[that is, the claim that the Finnish social democrats were “the most miserable revolutionaries in history”]—might hold water were our story to end in November—but subsequent events showed that the revolutionary heart of Finland’s Social Democracy eventually prevailed.

Again, it truly boggles the mind that anyone can draw such a conclusion from the events that followed.

The class war bursts into the open

On December 6, the bourgeois-led Finnish parliament again declared that Finland was independent. This time, Finland’s new status was recognized by the Bolshevik government in Russia. The Bolsheviks understood that this would help forge a closer bond between the Finnish and Russian workers, and show the Finns that despite the history of tsarist oppression, they had nothing to fear and everything to gain by linking up with the new workers’ state. The idea was to form a voluntary union of soviet republics, and the Finnish Soviet Republic would have been the most economically advanced, a huge feather in the cap of what would become the USSR.

Despite the role of the leaders, the revolutionary mood continued to spread, even into the more backwards areas of northern Finland. There were large meetings of landless peasants, who began to draw the conclusion that their liberation could come only through self-action, not by waiting for decrees from parliament. At the same time, the Red Guards held a big meeting in Tammerfors to discuss the next steps. The clock was ticking. This unstable situation of dual power could not last forever—either one side or the other would have to get the upper hand.

For their part, the Whites lost no time in preparing to restore their version of “law and order.” On January 9, Svinhufvud moved to establish a police force based on the White Guards. General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who had fought on behalf of the tsar during the world war, was called in to organize the counterrevolution. All of this was seen as a clear provocation by the Reds, who were not willing to accept that these butchers would be in charge of maintaining order.

Finally, the SDP saw no other choice but to succumb to the pressure of the masses towards revolution. They brought leaders from the Red Guards on to the Central Committee of the party, which at long last gave the revolutionary wing the majority. At a meeting of the central leadership of the party held from January 19 to 22, the party finally came out in favor of revolution—but precious time had been lost through vacillation.

On January 27, the red flag was raised over the Helsinki Workers’ House. The Red Guards moved to occupy all the strategic points in the city, and, as during the Paris Commune, the reactionary government abandoned the capital and ran away, in this case, to the city of Vaasa. Within days, with very little resistance, all the major cities and towns in the South had been taken. This was not only the most densely populated, but also the most industrialized part of Finland.

Workers’ control of industry and the eight-hour day were implemented, freedom of the press was instituted, and sabotage of the economy by the banks was brought under control. The old system of land distribution, which included elements of tribute and corvée labor, was abolished, and domestic servants and farm hands were emancipated from their indentured conditions. A Council of People’s Delegates was formed. This sounds nice on paper, but it was, in fact, a strange and untenable hybrid of a workers’ government in bourgeois parliamentary form.

Nonetheless, the revolution seemed to be making giant strides and faced almost no active resistance. It all seemed too easy and daily life went back to a new kind of normal almost immediately. But an easy, normal life was the last thing that awaited the Finnish workers. Because, in reality, this was a bizarre variant of dual power. As the Finnish revolutionary Edvard Torniainen correctly put it after the fact:

In theory, the highest conceivable degree in the development of bourgeois democracy was attained—a degree which is in practice unrealizable under the capitalist system. Bourgeois democracy has to either go on and be transformed into the dictatorship of the proletariat, if the proletariat is the winner, or become the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie if the proletariat is defeated.


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