[Audio] Lessons of the Finnish Revolution of 1917–1918 (Pt. 3)

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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.

Listen to the full episode and all other episodes wherever you listen to podcasts: socialistrevolution.tv



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

Marxists understand that mistakes in theory can lead to catastrophes in practice, and the Finnish Revolution is one of the most tragic examples. By some estimates, as many as 100,000 Finnish workers were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. That amounts to about 25% of the working class! Betrayal is inherent in reformism, no matter how well-intentioned.

[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.


Over the last two episodes of our series on the Finnish Revolution, we set the stage for the outbreak of civil war in Finland, with some background history for context, and provided an overview of the February and October Revolutions. By early 1918, the Finnish workers had seized power, the red flag was flying over Helsinki, and life seemed to be going back to a new normal.

However, in this final episode, we’ll see that no matter how off balance they are knocked, the ruling class, its institutions, and bodies of armed men will use any means necessary to claw their way back into full control. There’s a narrow window of opportunity in a revolution—and time is of the essence. Any hesitation or vacillation in the midst of a revolutionary situation can lead, not only to missed opportunities, but to unmitigated disaster.

The limitations of Social Democracy

As we saw in episode two, the Social-Democratic leadership simply didn’t recognize the need to consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat. They didn’t expropriate the bourgeois and the banks. They didn’t move to implement a program that could win or neutralize the masses of small and mid-sized, petty-bourgeois farmers in the north. They didn’t collectivize the land or even break up the estates of the larger peasants.

As Kuusinen put it, again, with the benefit of hindsight, “Until they were defeated, most of the leaders of the revolution had no clear idea of the aims of the revolution.”

The truth is that the SDP leaders had adapted themselves and their ideas to capitalism. They had adopted the Menshevik two-stage idea—which was later embraced by the Stalinists—which argued that, based on its current stage of development, bourgeois democracy was the most Finland could aspire to. Never mind that Finland had already reached a pretty advanced level of economic development.

As Eric Blanc approvingly explains while advocating the same basic approach today: “Seeking to implement the orientation elaborated by German Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky, from 1906 onwards most of the party infused legal tactics and a parliamentary focus with a sharp class-struggle politics.”

The SDP leaders’ perspective was that “a socialist revolution would eventually be the task of the day, but until then the party should cautiously build up its strength and avoid any premature clashes with the ruling class. This strategy of revolutionary social democracy—with its militant message and slow-but-steady methods—was spectacularly successful in Finland.”

Now I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not this strategy was “spectacularly successful,” once we get to the end of this episode. I think it will be clear that, far from pursuing “sharp class-struggle politics,” these organic class collaborationists cowered in the face of the open class struggle—while the masses put everything on the line in the fight for a better world.

So, given their past trajectory, conditions of life, and so-called strategic vision, the SDP leaders aimed to establish a bourgeois parliamentary democracy in which the workers would be the leading class—without the dictatorship of the proletariat and the expropriation of the capitalists. It was a workers’ revolution in the name of an idealized bourgeois democracy, complete with a beautifully utopian constitution.

The new constitution was presented in February 1918, to be ratified by referendum later that spring. It included lots of nice things, including universal suffrage and proportional representation, including the right for women to vote, the right to strike, the right to recall deputies to the parliament, election of the judiciary and its autonomy from the government, and even the constitutional right for citizens to rise in insurrection against a tyrannical government that did not respect the constitution.

The problem was not a broadly representative system as such, but a system trying to serve two irreconcilably opposed classes. You either move decisively towards the dictatorship of the working class and workers’ democracy—or you slide backwards to the dictatorship of the capitalists, which under those conditions could not manifest as a nice, liberal, bourgeois-democratic republic, but as a brutal military dictatorship that would shoot the workers back into submission. You cannot square the circle, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The reformist illusions that blinded the leadership at the time were yet again summed up by Kuusinen: “The weakness of the bourgeoisie led us into being captivated by the spell of democracy, and we decided to advance towards socialism through parliamentary action and the democratization of the representative system.”

As we’ve seen, the capitalists understood that they could not share power with the working class. Having lost control of the situation, they were not about to give up their wealth and privileges without a fight, and had no illusions in a peaceful, parliamentary road to restoring their class rule. One of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever seen was about to be fought, with an unprecedented frenzy of reactionary murder and massacre.

The civil war

As part of its preparations for a final showdown, the Finnish bourgeois had recalled the 27th Jäger Battalion from Germany, which was mentioned in episode one. With their military training and wartime experience, these troops formed the backbone of the “armed bodies” of reaction. A small White army was formed under General Mannerheim, the former tsarist general, comprised of the Schutzkorps “Protection Guards,” the 27th Jägers, and a brigade of 1,300 or so Swedish volunteers, made up largely of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois youth. These “volunteers” included military officers that the Swedish government allowed to go on temporary “leave” to join the Whites in Finland.

The Whites attacked several poorly defended Russian garrisons in the North of Finland to acquire weapons, and it is likely that the commanders of those garrisons were complicit in letting the arms fall into the reactionaries’ hands. All told at that time, the Whites had around 5,000 troops against less than half that many Red Guards. But the Red Guards were heroic, and with the help of some revolutionary Russian commanders, including part of the Baltic Fleet, which was docked at Helsinki, they repelled Mannerheim’s initial attacks, and began arming and training more Finnish Red Guards.

Although the Reds held all the main cities, the Whites were stronger in the less-developed north, where the more backwards layers of the population were tricked or compelled by force to participate in the war on the side of the Whites. Their main lie was that the Reds were “just a bunch of Russians” looking to subjugate Finland once again.

On March 3, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was forced on the Bolsheviks after German militarism went on a brutal offensive against the exhausted Russian armies. The Bolsheviks, who were literally fighting for survival, had no option but to sign the harsh conditions of the treaty. These included a provision for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Finland. Combined with the political mistakes of the SDP leadership, this dealt a terrible blow to the Finnish Revolution.

But the Reds weren’t going to give up without a fight either. Around 1,000 Russians remained behind, organized in Finnish units, and at the beginning of March, the Reds launched a general offensive. This failed, unfortunately, but the workers’ will to fight was still not broken. By April they had gathered a force as large as 60,000. At the height of the civil war, some 80–90,000 fought on each side.

However, aside from some sympathetic Russian soldiers, sailors, and officers, the Finnish Reds had little or no military training and no capable military leaders, leading to some critical mistakes. Major battles included Tampere, Lahti, Helsinki, Vyborg, and others. The battle of Tammerfors was particularly brutal, as 10,000 Reds led by a few Russian officers were unable to hold off Mannerheim’s troops. 2,000 Reds were killed in the fighting or massacred, and 5,000 were taken prisoner.

Within a few weeks, the tide decisively turned against the Reds. Because, as the Russians left in the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk, the German imperialists entered. Svinhufvud opened the door to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops, and on April 3, some 20,000 well-trained and equipped German soldiers landed in Hangö, Helsinki, and Lovisa in Southern Finland, effectively attacking the Reds from the rear.

After bitter street-by-street fighting, they captured Helsinki. One tactic used by the Kaiser’s troops in the battle was to round up the workers’ wives and children, and to march them in front of them through the streets. At least 100 women and children were killed during the fighting, and hundreds more working-class women were summarily shot without trial after Helsinki fell. The captured Reds were marched out into the streets and onto the frozen ice and unceremoniously shot.

The decisive battle came at Tavastehus. Some 20,000 to 25,000 Reds—who had been accompanied by their families—fought heroically before again being defeated. A few thousand escaped, but most did not. The reprisals were again brutal: the wounded were murdered in cold blood, thousands were massacred, and 10,000 were taken prisoner.

The White Terror

This was just the beginning of what would come to be known as the White Terror. Wars between bourgeois nation states can almost seem like “civilized affairs” when compared to open war between the classes. The capitalists are very fond of the “fair” rules of engagement set in the Geneva Convention, but when it comes to dealing with the revolutionary masses, their true colors are revealed.

In terms of class hatred, revenge, and brutality, the massacre of the Reds during and after the Finnish Revolution ranks right up with the Paris Commune, when 40,000 Communards were hunted down in the streets and killed in the weeks after the Commune’s fall in May of 1871. For example, in the Finnish town of Kummen, 43 Red Guards died in the actual battle, but nearly 500 were slaughtered in the aftermath. Men, women, and children were hunted, gunned down, and rounded up to be shot later, often simply because of the neighborhoods they lived in, the workplaces they were employed at, their last names, or even their clothing. The execution squads fired their overheating machine guns literally for hours and days at a time.

From the beginning, the Whites ordered that all Reds should be considered traitors—an offense punishable by death. A decree was passed which, among other things, stated that anyone found with concealed guns or guns without a permit should be executed on the spot. An estimated 70,000 Reds were interned in concentration camps, some of the first examples of this kind of prison in the world. Over 10,000 died due to abuse or neglect in these camps. The German high command, in a preview of their policy during World War II, had plans to send many of the prisoners to forced labor camps in Germany. Only the outbreak of the German Revolution, in November 1918, cut across this.

To cover up the crimes of the Whites, bourgeois and liberal historians have tried to exaggerate the extent of the Red Terror. While there certainly was a Red Terror, it had a completely different character than the White Terror, given its fundamentally different class content. For example, while the Council of People’s Delegates supported the armed struggle, they opposed executing prisoners. Unlike the Whites, there were no decrees or official orders issued to this effect. The historian Anthony F. Upton, in his thorough research, found only one article in the entire Red press advocating the execution of counterrevolutionaries captured in arms.

Among the poorest layers of the population there was, of course, a widespread and deep-seated class hatred against their exploiters and oppressors. After decades of humiliation and oppression, and in the context of the brutal and bloody suppression of the movement of the masses, it is understandable that many ordinary people who sided with the revolution took matters in their own hands against those they correctly saw as responsible for carrying out these atrocities. So there were some incidents and killings, especially in the most backward, rural areas.

This was thoroughly researched after the civil war, and all told, an estimated 1,649 people were executed by the Reds. However, these killings were disorganized and ultimately did little or nothing to stop the White Terror, the White military’s advance, or to discourage the supporters of the counterrevolution—though it gave plenty of ammunition to the White propaganda machine.

The reality is that the workers and their leaders were overly naive about what was needed to win the civil war. Having lost two golden opportunities to take power peacefully, the only way to win it now was through a show of overwhelming force and class resolve. As Lenin and Trotsky pointed out repeatedly: in the class war, one must be decisive—weakness invites aggression! However, up to the last moment, the workers’ leaders were unwilling to take the harsh measures that were needed to defend the revolution.

During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks created the Cheka as a revolutionary intelligence service to root out the counterrevolutionaries in their midst. But the soft and effete workers’ leaders in Finland refused to take even such basic measures of self-defense. Although they had outlawed the White press, no one thought to expropriate the stores of paper. This meant that, while the Red press suffered from a severe shortage of paper for printing, the underground White newspapers could be published regularly.

In another telling anecdote, on the day before the Red uprising on January 27, members of the White Senate were still in Helsinki, yet no one bothered to arrest them. When the workers’ leaders finally did begin to move against the reaction, those found guilty of supporting the counterrevolution were often sentenced leniently, which only encouraged them further. These and other mistakes meant that the Red Guards and the working class generally would now face the full wrath of the White Terror.

Reaction in the saddle

For months and even years after the fighting between massed formations of armed fighters ended, Finnish society was literally being purged. Dozens of revolutionaries committed suicide, rather than be captured. Tens of thousands went into exile, many to the US state of Minnesota. Tens of thousands more were sentenced to prison—if they were not shot.

The irony is that many of the social-democrats being murdered in the aftermath were not socialist revolutionaries at all and presented no threat to private property. Rather, these were faithful servants of capitalist rule! As we have seen time and again throughout the 20th century, the Finnish ruling class needed the reformists as the last line of defense against the revolutionary workers. But once they regained the upper hand through brute force, they no longer needed these people. Firing squads and prison were the reward for their loyal service to capitalism.

Incredibly, this crucial truth is entirely glossed over by Eric Blanc and the reformist editorial board of Jacobin, who today play objectively the same role as their Finnish social-democratic forebearers. Victor Serge, on the other hand, perfectly understood and summed up the nature of the Finnish White Terror:

The White terror is not to be explained by the frenzy of battle, the violence of class hatred or any other psychological factor. The psychosis of civil war plays a purely secondary role. The terror is in reality the result of a calculation and a historical necessity. The victorious propertied classes are perfectly aware that they can only ensure their own domination in the aftermath of a social battle by inflicting on the working class a bloodbath savage enough to enfeeble it for tens of years afterwards. And since the class in question is far more numerous than the wealthy classes, the number of victims must be very great…

The total extermination of all the advanced and conscious elements of the proletariat is, in short, the rational objective of the White terror. In this sense, a vanquished revolution—regardless of its tendency—will always cost the proletariat far more than a victorious revolution, no matter what sacrifices and rigors the latter may demand.”

By some estimates, as many as 100,000 Finnish workers were killed, imprisoned, or exiled—that is, 25% of the working class! So anyone who is scandalized by the alleged brutality of the Reds during the Finnish or Russian Civil Wars should look at the actions of the Whites in Finland, or the Russian White generals, such as Kolchak, Denikin, or Wrangel. In fact, the research shows that for every one person killed by the Russian Red Terror, 100 were killed by the Whites. Talk about the 1% taking revenge on the 99%!

To be fair, even Lenin did not initially realize the extent to which the imperialists would go to crush the Bolshevik Revolution. He hoped they might be given a bit of space and time to strengthen the economy and to stabilize the situation internally after the chaos and collective exhaustion of World War I and the revolution. Once recovered, the Russians and other soviet republics could move on the offensive against world imperialism, in support of the workers of the world politically, economically, and militarily.

But neither the Allies nor the Austro-Germans were going to give them that break, as 21 foreign armies invaded and did their utmost to throttle the newborn workers’ republic in the cradle. The suffering of the Russian masses during the civil war was extreme. But it would have been even worse if the Whites had won. Given what happened in Finland, just imagine the massacres that would have taken place on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow.

As the Ancient Romans understood all too well, vae victis—woe to the vanquished.

Lessons of the Finnish Revolution

It should be clear enough by now, but let’s recap the main lessons to be drawn from this experience. Marxists understand that mistakes in theory can lead to catastrophes in practice. And the Finnish Revolution is one of the most tragic examples. The events that rocked that country in the early 20th century are an object lesson in how betrayal is inherent in reformism—no matter how well-intentioned. The leaders were caught up in their own reformist illusions and this led the workers to a bloody defeat.

The Social Democratic Party considered itself to be more or less “orthodox Marxist,” but in practice, they were adherents of the ideas of Karl Kautsky, the prominent theoretician of the German Social-Democracy. He had adopted a revisionist conception, completely removing revolution and the active intervention of the conscious and organized working class from the equation of socialist transformation.

According to Kautsky, the task of the party was not to lead the working class to power, but rather, to observe passively from the sidelines while broader, mechanical historical laws unfolded—unaffected by the will of individuals, classes, and parties. This denial of the active and essential role of the revolutionary party was something the Finnish SDP had internalized through-and-through, leading them to an impasse—and a death trap.

Given Kautsky’s authority in the socialist movement at that time, we could perhaps forgive the Finnish social democrats for their naivety. But there is absolutely no excuse for harboring these kinds of confusions or illusions today.

Eric Blanc’s Kautskyism

Which brings us back to Eric Blanc and Jacobin magazine. What’s really scandalous about these liberal socialists is that they consciously reject the road of revolution and class struggle, in favor of class collaboration, while pointing to the Finnish experience as a model victory for socialists! Digging himself an ever deeper hole into the swamp of confusion and class collaboration, Blanc asserts that one of the main lessons of this experience is that the Bolsheviks were not “the sole party in the empire capable of leading workers to power.”

He continues:

In many ways, the experience of the Finnish SDP 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.

The party’s preference for a defensive parliamentary strategy did not ultimately prevent it from overthrowing capitalist rule and taking steps towards socialism.

This is an absolutely incredible assertion, that “revolution” without class struggle is the “traditional view” of Marxists, and that the Finnish SDP successfully overthrew capitalism and led the workers to power and “took steps towards socialism” through its “defensive parliamentary strategy”! I mean, to equate Lenin’s Bolsheviks—who actually did lead the workers to power and overthrew capitalism— with the Finnish SDP, is like equating a gorilla with a platypus because they’re both mammals.

Blanc concedes only this:

[That] Finland showed not only the strengths but also the potential limitations of revolutionary social democracy: a hesitancy to abandon the parliamentary arena; an underestimation of mass action; and a tendency to bend to moderate socialists for the sake of party unity.

To call the SDP’s actions “an underestimation of mass action” and “a tendency to bend to moderate socialists for the sake of party unity” is a dishonest evasion and kick in the face to the Finnish working class.

Blanc’s entire aim is to cherry-pick those aspects of the Finnish experience that he considers applicable to the situation today in countries like the US, while blurring the class line, making excuses for the Kautskyites, revising the Marxist theory of the state, stripping Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky of their revolutionary essence while denying the unity of thought among these giants of human thinking and action, and papering over the catastrophe that resulted from the Finnish workers’ rotten leadership.

The essence of Blanc’s petty-bourgeois pessimism, and his insistence on running so-called “socialist” candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line, in order to prepare a so-called “dirty break” with the party par excellence of capitalism at some point in the distant future, is revealed in these whimpering and whining words:

Leninist parties have never come close to making their own revolution in advanced capitalist democracy. The tragedy of the Bolsheviks’ inspiring example was not only that they so quickly succumbed to the horrors of Stalinism, but that they over-projected a revolutionary approach ill-suited for parliamentary contexts.

And to make the case for an amorphous “big tent” political strategy that blurs the class lines, he adds:

The big lesson of imperial Russia was not the need for tight Marxist discipline or an opportunist-free party. The big strategic takeaway from the experience of all of imperial Russia taken as a whole is that the only plausible path to socialist transformation in parliamentary countries is a radical form of democratic socialism.

In other words, instead of organizing on a class-independent basis and fighting to overthrow the capitalist state and replacing it with a workers’ state, Blanc thinks socialists should focus on transforming and democratizing the capitalists’ state “through initiatives like subordinating unelected governmental bodies to parliament, eliminating antidemocratic structures like the US Supreme Court, and giving public employees and trade unions substantial governance powers.”

He considers “a dual power strategy irrelevant, since workers will certainly grow strong enough to democratize the US regime far before they are strong enough to overthrow the entire state.”

This incoherent and ahistorical mess is what he calls “effective socialist politics.” Blanc has absolutely no conception of the dialectical relationship between the class, the party, and the leadership. And never mind the devastation caused by world war, civil war, and imperialist invasion, encirclement, and sabotage, or the failure of the socialist revolution to spread successfully to Germany, France, Spain, China, and beyond!

What happened in Russia, according to Blanc, is that the Bolsheviks “succumbed to the horrors of Stalinism.” He then characterizes their effort to build the Communist International to spread the revolution worldwide as “over-projecting” their revolutionary approach. And this person is considered an “authority” and an “expert” when it comes to socialist politics! Of course, he’s entitled to his opinions and to wallow in confusion, but really, no one should allow themselves to be pulled into the quicksand with him.

The need for revolutionary Marxist leadership

So let’s be crystal clear: the tragedy of the Finnish Revolution, and of every other revolution we’ve seen since 1917, is that there was no organized revolutionary Bolshevik wing that could successfully challenge the reformist, or at the very best, centrist leadership. Had the Finnish working class in 1917 and 1918 been armed with a correct perspective and program, and led by a revolutionary Marxist party, it could easily have swept away capitalism.

Even a relatively small revolutionary tendency could have fought for a revolutionary program within the soviets, the Red Guards, the trade unions, and the party. On the basis of events, in these circumstances, this would have had a measurable impact, and such a tendency could have grown quickly and been in a position to change the entire course of human history.

Trotsky summed up the perils of reformism in his classic work, Lessons of October:

We had an instance of this same thing in 1917 in the case of Finland. There, the revolutionary movement developed under exceptionally favorable circumstances, under the wing of revolutionary Russia and with its direct military assistance. But the majority of the leaders in the Finnish party proved to be social democrats, and they ruined the revolution.

Not only was the Finnish Revolution ruined, but its defeat marked the beginning of the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the imperialist encirclement to strangle it. Had the workers of Finland won and held power, it is likely that the German Revolution that followed later that same year would have been in a better position to succeed as well. The Russians would have had a more industrialized country as part of the USSR, not to mention an important strategic position from which to defend Petrograd.

All of these events are connected, all the way through the rise of Stalinism, the defeat of Chinese and Spanish Revolutions, Hitler, World War II, and everything else humanity has had to endure because nowhere other than Russia has the working class yet built the leadership it requires and deserves.

Now, given the class balance of forces today, this kind of bloodshed and slaughter is highly unlikely, in my opinion. But we should not be naive. The better prepared the workers are, the more resolute, the less likely that we will see this kind of bloodshed during the socialist revolution. Because the forces of reaction will not hesitate to commit another massacre on the scale of the Paris Commune or the Finnish Revolution if their fundamental interests are at stake.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the far right also sees the events of Finland as worthy of study and full of lessons. They are also preparing for revolution—or rather, for counterrevolution. As one of their commentators chillingly puts it:

[The Finnish Civil War] was started by the Left, the Reds, and ended by the rest of Finnish society, the Whites, who crushed the Reds, preserving Finland from the fate of Bolshevik Russia. This war is an object lesson in how even a homogenous, largely united country can quickly end up in civil war when part of the population becomes gripped with Left ideology, and it is also an object lesson in what to do in response.

And in writing off the barbarism of the Whites, this far-right ideologue writes:

Did Pinochet’s extrajudicial killings of a few thousand known Communists, whose rule would have meant the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions, constitute “terror”? Not in the same sense as the countless global Red Terrors. Pinochet’s targets were few in number, and they were guilty of specific crimes, not being “class enemies.” Pinochet’s real crime was beating the Left, and he has never been forgiven, nor will he be, until the global Left is utterly and permanently broken and destroyed.

Those are the stakes, folks! Again, no matter how democratic and liberal, the bourgeoisie will go to any extreme to defend its power and wealth. Even in places like “nice, happy, social-democratic” Finland.

So while Marxists are absolutely in favor of a peaceful revolution, this can only happen on one condition: that we build a revolutionary tendency capable of transforming itself into a mass party that can lead the workers to power in the heat of revolutionary struggle. This requires not only a skillful orientation to the mass organizations of the workers, starting with the unions, but also the understanding that we cannot trust the liberal-socialist reformists to change society. Their tinkering with this or that aspect of the system is ultimately doomed to failure.

In the long run, if capitalism is not overthrown, it will continue its descent into crisis, and even more terrible tragedies will be suffered by the working class. But the more prepared the workers are for any eventuality, and the stronger the revolutionary leadership, the harder it will be for the ruling class to stage a successful counteroffensive. Our starting point is that the class interests of the workers and the capitalists are irreconcilably opposed. Anyone who blurs that line consciously or through naivety is preparing the grounds for defeat and reaction.

As Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program, the crisis of humanity is the crisis of leadership of the working class. It’s up to us to learn and transmit all of these lessons and to build that leadership.


[Theme music plays]

That’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening! We hope you’ve enjoyed this series on the Finnish Revolution, which holds tremendous lessons for revolutionary socialists today.

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