The lost workers' revolution: Finland 1917-18

by Duncan Hart • Published 12 January 2018

The Finnish Revolution of 1917-1918 is a subject relatively unexplored by the socialist left outside of Finland itself. For most socialists, their engagement with the revolution is probably limited to the few pages in Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution focusing on the Civil War between Reds and Whites that took place in Finland from 27 January to 15 May of 1918.

Serge emphasises particularly the scale of the White terror that took place after the defeat of the Reds, as a warning of what could be expected if the Bolsheviks were unable to hold on to power.[1] Subsequent calculations showed that approximately 30,000 people were killed at the hands of the Whites, mostly after the fighting had ended; 7,370 through execution and 11,652 of disease and malnutrition in the concentration camps.[2] Over 65,000 “Reds” were deprived of political rights or suffered imprisonment, mostly for a few years but in some cases for over a decade, in a country with a little over three million inhabitants.

While the bloody defeat suffered by the workers’ movement should frame discussions of the revolution itself, Finland’s revolution has lessons for socialists beyond the depths of barbarity the bourgeoisie will sink to in order to maintain their social order. Finland in 1917 was governed by the Russian empire, but enjoyed relative internal autonomy. More economically developed than Russia proper, by the twentieth century a large landless rural labouring class and a rapidly expanding timber and paper industry had sprung up. The Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP) was the largest in relative size in the world by 1914, and easily larger than the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks at the start of 1917, with 84,000 members. After the 1905 Russian revolution, which had its echoes in Finland as in the rest of the empire, Finland was granted a democratically elected parliament, with proportional suffrage for both men and women over the age of 24. The SDP quickly became the largest party in the parliament and by 1916 was the first social democratic party anywhere to hold a parliamentary majority.[3] This parliament, despite its democratic appearance, was consistently stymied from passing legislation by the veto of the tsar, and prevented from meeting after 1914 due to the World War.

The politics of the SDP were divided between an “Orthodox Second International Marxist” Centre influenced by the writings of Karl Kautsky and an openly revisionist Right. The Centre, as described by leading “orthodox” SDP theoretician Otto Wille Kuusinen, “did not believe in Revolution; we did not trust it, nor did we call for it”. The defining feature of this political tendency was: “1) Peaceful, continuous but not revolutionary class war, and at the same time 2) an independent class-war, seeking no alliance with the bourgeoisie”.[4]

These Right and Centre tendencies overlapped and were not clearly defined factions, as shown by Kuusinen’s remarks to the SDP Executive in June 1917:

I for my part am on a fairly revisionist footing now… But it does no harm if outward appearance is more radical than reality. We have always been like that in our party… We had made such a dogma of class war… If there had been someone who had dared to speak against it, it would have been condemned by the party. But of course we have ventured in practice to act against it.[5]

Thus Finland’s revolution is a key test for the Marxism of the Second International in a state that was more advanced, both politically and economically, than the Russian empire of which it was a part. It is one of the few examples in the history of the international socialist movement where a social democratic party led a working class insurrection and briefly formed a state based on workers’ power, before its brutal suppression.

A contested history

The heroic struggle of Finland’s workers and the leading role of the SDP in the revolution has led to the emergence of the view that the Finnish SDP can be understood as politically analogous to the Bolsheviks, who until 1918 still identified themselves as part of social democracy, albeit differentiated from the Mensheviks and other radical left parties in the Russian empire. This perspective was first voiced by the White Finnish government, which described the SDP’s actions as akin to Bolshevism and “[p]lain terrorist activity… the Finnish government cannot recognise for a moment these criminal gangs, which have initiated violence against all human and divine rights”.[6]

One of the earliest efforts to construct the triumphant bourgeois hegemony over the historical narrative can be found for English-speaking readers in Henning Söderhjelm’s The Red Insurrection in Finland in 1918, published in 1920. His book articulates the perspective that the SDP’s actions can be put down to the importation of foreign Bolshevik infection.[7] More recently a left wing variant of this argument has emerged in a series of articles by US socialist Eric Blanc. His spotlight on Finland’s SDP is an element of his broader argument that German socialist Karl Kautsky’s politics prior to 1909 represented a form of “revolutionary social democracy” that he argues is closer to Lenin’s politics than to the reformism that came to dominate the Second International.[8] For Blanc, the Finnish SDP’s “Orthodox Second International Marxist” Centre tendency represented a continuation of Kautsky’s revolutionary politics and hence he concludes:

It seems to me well past time to acknowledge that revolutionary social democracy [i.e. as represented by the Finnish SDP’s “orthodox” tendency] was politically far closer to the stance of Bolshevism and the early Comintern than it was to the class-collaborationism of the German SPD officialdom and its bureaucratic counterparts across Europe.[9]

By more or less equating the Finnish SDP and the Bolsheviks,[10] Blanc is lining up in opposition to the majority of historians on the Finnish revolution,[11] and the conclusions of its foremost leaders, such as Kuusinen, who relentlessly criticised their own actions during the revolution and went on to form the Finnish Communist Party.[12]

This article will seek to address how the politics of the Finnish Social Democrats, in particular that of the Centre, failed in the crucial test of the revolution and led the working class to a crippling defeat. In direct contrast to the contention that the SDP can be considered a counterpart to the Bolsheviks, it was precisely the absence of such a party that doomed the Finnish workers’ revolution.

The Bolsheviks in 1917 intervened at every stage of the revolution in order to provide Marxist leadership to the radicalising masses, as expressed in their slogan of “all power to the Soviets”, culminating in the victorious insurrection on 25 October (7 November new style) and the vote at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets for the formation of a Soviet government. By contrast, the Finnish SDP Centre, wedded to a mechanical and gradualist understanding of attaining socialism through the ballot box, restrained the initiative and daring of the workers, held no place in their theory for the concept of a workers’ state and only launched their own insurrection when it had become clear the bourgeoisie intended to violently crush the workers’ movement.

The March 1917 revolution

Finnish society experienced the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution as an almost entirely passive spectator. The February general strike in Petrograd found no immediate echo in Finland, and it was Russian soldiers and sailors, garrisoned in the country, who imported the revolutionary sentiment. Imitating their comrades elsewhere, these Russian troops set up their own elected committees, did away with their officers and established Soviets of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Deputies. It was these mutinous troops who disbanded the tsarist police and encouraged the Finnish SDP to establish a militia comprised of workers instead.[13]

This issue – the collapse of the repressive apparatus of the tsarist state and its replacement by armed bodies of workers – was to become the central tension between the bourgeoisie and the working class in Finland. Initially the bourgeois parties were agreeable enough to the idea of forming a militia to maintain law and order, rather than the task being performed by Russian soldiers. Once it became apparent that the only political force large and coordinated enough to provide the ranks of the militia was the SDP, urged on by Russian soldiers, the bourgeoisie immediately raised concerns.[14] The Finnish state bureaucracy was entirely conservative, but a central pillar of the state – its organs of repression – were now in the hands of democratic workers’ militias.

Another initial product of the revolution was the establishment of a government in Finland based upon its parliament, though sovereign power continued to lie with the Russian Provisional Government as the legal successor to the tsar. The bourgeois parties approached the SDP leadership with the request to form a government of national unity, with all parties represented in the 12 member cabinet. The Social Democrats were even offered a majority in the cabinet to match their parliamentary majority.

With much hand wringing and consternation, it was decided that the Social Democratic Party would “oppose” joining a coalition government with the bourgeois parties, but that those who wished to participate were not prevented from doing so. The result was a government whose majority was Social Democratic, but which the Party itself disavowed. The prime minister of the new government was the Socialist Oskari Tokoi.[15]

Rising class struggle and the Valtalaki

Soon, Finland’s workers were beginning to catch up to their Russian brethren and to demand key planks of the SDP platform – in particular, the eight-hour day. The Trade Union Federation (SAJ) had endorsed a struggle to achieve this demand on 20 March and by 18 April metalworkers were taking strike action rather than waiting for change through the parliament. The metalworkers easily won, with strikes then spreading to the largest but also most downtrodden section of the proletariat – rural labourers. Over the course of May, 900 farms saw strikes for the eight-hour day, many successful, and a new wave of strikes surged in June and July.[16] This escalation in the class struggle saw increased consternation from the landowners and bourgeoisie about the ineffectiveness of the workers’ militia as a tool to put down strikes.

Alongside strikes in all manner of industries, famine was threatening. Finland was reliant on external sources of grain, trading lumber and paper in return. With rising disorder throughout the empire, in 1917 Finland received one eighteenth of its annual pre-war grain imports. Grain consumption fell to a third of what it had been prior to the World War.[17] Workers rightly felt that they bore the burden of the food shortages, while wealthy landowners hoarded produce and the bourgeoisie were always able to afford their fill. The coalition government implemented rationing of staples like milk, butter, grain and potatoes in June, creating “food committees” in different localities, whose composition was left to local governments dominated by the bourgeoisie. This system effectively maintained the pre-existing shortages, as the government was unwilling to requisition produce by force from farmers who were unwilling to hand it over to the authorities, preferring instead to sell at a mark-up to the wealthy on the black market. Workers had to wait for hours for their ration, and were made to go without periodically.

With escalating fears about access to food, which was connected to bourgeois domination over local government and hence rationing, and an explosion of workers’ struggle for the eight-hour day, even among less organised rural workers, the SDP felt pressured to act, to rein in the movement. It had already attempted to pass bills for reform of local government and to introduce the eight-hour day through parliament, but these bills had failed because the Provisional Government of Kerensky opposed them, exercising the same imperial veto that the tsar had used before.

It was in this context that the SDP decided to press ahead with the “Law on authority” or Valtalaki. The Valtalaki was more than a law, in that it overstepped the legal boundaries of Finland’s parliament. Essentially it vested sovereign authority in Finland in the parliament, rather than the Russian governor. It was still not a declaration of independence, in that the Valtalaki reserved foreign and military affairs to the Provisional Government, but it would have enabled the Finnish parliament to pass and confirm its own laws concerning internal affairs – such as the crucial eight-hour and local government bills.

With their majority, the Social Democrats passed the Valtalaki into law on the night of 17-18 July. Petrograd was wracked by the crisis of the July Days, which was as yet unknown to the SDP. Upon hearing the news, Kerensky flew into a customary tantrum, and flush with his victory over the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, ordered a Cossack regiment into Helsinki to disperse the Finnish parliament.

The Finnish bourgeoisie, despite widespread support in their own ranks for Finnish independence, supported Kerensky and opposed the Valtalaki. From their perspective, independence on the terms of the Valtalaki would allow the Social Democrats too free a hand, since it vested sovereign power in parliament. The bourgeois parties did not fear the Social Democrats so much as they distrusted their ability to restrain the workers.[18] The Finnish SDP did not accept the legality of Kerensky’s dispersal, since the Valtalaki had been passed by a parliamentary majority and therefore power had passed into the hands of the parliament. Nonetheless, when new elections were scheduled for 1-2 October, the SDP put all of their efforts into campaigning, confident that they would increase their already existing majority.

The November general strike and revolutionary crisis

When the election results were announced on 11 October the Social Democrats were dismayed. They had lost their majority, having received only 45 per cent of the vote. The worst fears of the SDP leadership had been realised and they were concerned that they would no longer be in a position to hold back workers from insurgency, as Kuusinen had voiced in late September:

What is going to happen if we are defeated in the elections? It could perhaps cause a revolution among the people. But we do not know how such a revolution would end. It would be a misfortune for the working class movement, and that is one reason to exert effort to see that success is achieved in the elections.[19]

The decision to found the Red Guard was made in the context of a joint discussion between the SDP leadership and the Trade Union Federation on 18 October when the possibilities to be weighed were either insurrection or general strike. Both the SDP and Trade Union Federation (SAJ) leaders believed the election defeat of a week prior would push workers down the route of direct action. At this meeting no decision, apart from the national creation of the Red Guard, was taken. However the SAJ sent an ultimatum to the newly elected government demanding public control over food production and consumption, with price controls so that workers could afford it.

The Trade Union Federation had already delivered an ultimatum to the new government demanding action to prevent famine, and had begun to prepare for a general strike. The Red Guards were organised in most major centres and had just been given the stamp of official approval to be set up nation-wide. The reason for the SDP leadership to take the lead of the situation was due to the concerns admitted by Kuusinen during an SDP Council meeting on 28 October: “[T]he masses may begin to act on their own initiative, without taking note of the instructions and order of the central organisations”. This was the context for SDP Chairman Kullervo Manner’s comment, expressing fear of revolution:

We cannot avoid the revolution for very long… [F]aith in the value of peaceful activity is lost and the working class is beginning to trust only in its own strength… [I]f we are mistaken about the rapid approach of revolution, I would be delighted.[20]

In typical fashion, this meeting abdicated responsibility and put off the determination of what action would be taken until the national congress of the SAJ, set for 12 November. The SDP leaders instead settled for the articulation of a program of demands, entitled Me Vaadimme (“We Demand”), designed to head off the expiration of the SAJ ultimatum on 1 November. This manifesto subsequently became the rallying banner of the general strike and demanded an eight-hour day, democratic reforms to local government administration, action on food to prevent workers starving and, crucially, the calling of a constituent assembly to draft the constitution of an independent Finland. The justification for new elections was predicated on a refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the Russian Provisional Government’s dissolution of the Finnish parliament and therefore, the SDP’s electoral defeat in October.

When the SAJ congress finally rolled around it was not a divided gathering. Meeting in the aftermath of the victorious Soviet insurrection in Petrograd,[21] the official minutes of the first day of the congress record that there was unanimous support for taking power. A speech from Haapalainen sums up the mood:

The ruling power in the land must be suppressed…we have no other means but to prepare for battle… The workers throughout the country are prepared and are expecting from this Congress…signals when to start… If in the main centres things are in the same state as in Helsinki and Kotka, then there is no need to delay even an hour longer, we can stop all work tomorrow morning already and having finished the work of this Congress, we can all enter the battle for victory or death.[22]

The second day of the congress was devoted to organising the strike, which began the following day, 14 November. By this time, the unions organised more workers than the SDP, with 170,000 workers under the umbrella of the SAJ as compared to 120,000 in the SDP. The growth of union membership occurred almost entirely in the context of the revolution and the wave of class struggle it had unleashed, which can explain why its leadership tended to be more radical than the SDP. Prior to 1917, only 42,000 workers were in unions, less than half as many as the SDP itself.[23]

The fact that the majority of workers supported insurrection was known to the SDP leaders, but at the moment of decision they stood opposed to it. Far from being consistent advocates of revolution, key “orthodox” leaders, in particular, Kuusinen, Sirola, Gylling and Manner, voted alongside the revisionists to scuttle plans for revolution, against the majority on the “Revolutionary Council” during its meeting on 16 November. Sirola in fact outlined a juxtaposed strategy: to seek assurances from the bourgeoisie of an amnesty for strikers, and for government action to prevent starvation among workers. This was after the general strike and fear of revolution had succeeded in forcing the bourgeois parliamentary majority to vote for the eight-hour day and democratic reforms to local government, which controlled welfare and rationing.[24]

It could not have been a clearer division – after only two days of the strike, far from taking inspiration from its success, the “orthodox” leaders wanted to draw back. With the revisionists and “orthodox” SDP leaders standing together, the vote for the seizure of power was cleanly split between the parliamentarians and SDP Executive, as against the union and Red Guard leaders.[25] Despite the majority, 14-11, voting that “the workers should take power into their own hands throughout the country”, the union and Red Guard leaders baulked at the prospect of proceeding without the support of any of the political leadership of the movement and backed down two hours later. “Orthodoxy” failed the decisive test, proving the necessity for independent revolutionary political organisation that could have led the revolutionary majority of workers. The backdown was so unpopular that the Helsinki Workers’ Council – an organisation created out of the revolution and consisting of delegates from every workers’ organisation in the capital – was able to maintain the general strike for a further two days after it was called off by the so-called Revolutionary Council.[26]

Eric Blanc, following the “orthodox” leaders of the SDP, suggests that given the right wing of the party would not have supported revolution, to have taken power in November risked a split, and this could have endangered the workers’ hold on power. Kuusinen outlined and rebuffed this view in his 1918 self-criticism, arguing that while a split in the SDP would have been likely, the success of the uprising would have followed nonetheless. Kuusinen thought a split on the basis of victory rather than after annihilating defeat (as occurred anyway) would have laid the best ground for the revolutionary left.[27]

The importance of retaining momentum: the military balance in November 1917 versus January 1918

The fatal indecision of the SDP leadership is made starker by the military weakness of the reactionary forces at the time of the general strike, whereas by the time of the insurrection in January 1918, the Whites were far better armed and prepared. It was an ongoing obsession of the bourgeoisie to establish its own forces of repression after revolutionary Russian soldiers and sailors set up the SDP-dominated workers’ militia in March 1917. The first of the Civil Guards (Suojeleskunta) were set up in August in response to the second round of farm workers’ strikes. But these were not armed by any authority, and were resolutely opposed by the Russian Soldiers’ Soviets, so had to be equipped with sporting rifles and pistols fit only to gun down unarmed workers.

Their impotence compared to the Red Guard (and their Russian allies) was shown in a number of incidents during the general strike, which was overwhelmingly non-violent despite the Red Guards receiving rifles from Russian soldiers in Kotka, Tampere, Turku, and Helsinki. In Turku, the organisers of the Civil Guard were arrested, as were the bourgeois members of the Food Board, with Russian soldiers assisting. In Tampere, the Civil Guard leaders were similarly arrested. In Helsinki, 200 members of the bourgeoisie were arrested and held as hostages, including Jalander, head of the Civil Guard. The Helsinki Red Guard, again assisted by revolutionary soldiers, also conducted a raid on 16 November against the training camp of the Civil Guard at Saksaniemi. While there was a brief attempt at resistance, the 20 rifles at the disposal of the reactionaries largely failed to fire and they were routed.[28]

Despite the beginnings of a national Civil Guard organisation existing by November, on a far more widespread basis than the Red Guard, they were largely unarmed.[29] Germany succeeded in transporting 6,500 rifles and 30 machine guns to the Civil Guard on 31 October[30] but this was most of the weaponry they possessed (and they had not distributed them by the time of the general strike, as its bloodlessness showed) until the bourgeois government legalised the Guard on 12 January, and established a training camp at Vaasa.

Clearly, the Civil Guards were still a negligible force during the November general strike. Unlike in January 1918, when the SDP leaders were forced into an insurrection faced with the potential of imminent violent reaction, the general strike was an attempt by the Social Democratic leaders to head off the discontent of the workers. This was clearly bubbling through with outright demands for insurrection as articulated by the meeting of the SAJ, the Helsinki Red Guard and the Helsinki Workers’ Council.

Leadership and determinism in revolution

On the face of it, leading an insurrection on 27 January 1918 appears to deeply contradict the gradualist and deterministic politics of the SDP’s “orthodox Marxist” leaders. However, this is a contradiction built into their deterministic outlook. The “orthodox” leaders of the Finnish party were concerned to maintain the unity of their party, which required action at times to head off discontent – such as the formation of the Red Guard or putting themselves at the head of the general strike.[31] This was opposed to the “gradualism” that otherwise dominated the party’s activity only at a surface level. Workers’ self-activity was tolerated or given a longer leash in times of crisis, in order that the leading position of the SDP not be challenged.

Within this framework it is clear that the determinist “Marxism” of the SDP meant passively tailing the working class and reacting to events rather than trying to provide leadership in the class struggle. This was clearly the orientation of the SDP leadership throughout 1917, as most clearly shown by the general strike, and continued to be the case in 1918. To understand how they could support insurrection in January, one must weigh up both the relentless hostility the SDP faced from the bourgeoisie, but also the mass support for insurrection among the working class, and the alternative organisational leadership afforded by the Red Guards, the SAJ and the small Finnish Bolshevik minority.

In certain circumstances, even totally bureaucratised workers’ formations entirely committed to gradualism and capitalism can organise general strikes, as occurred in Germany in 1920, when it was the SPD’s cabinet ministers who signed the call for a general strike to halt the military’s Kapp Putsch – a strike call that was successful and opened up a period of intense class struggle.

Related to their overall mechanical approach to social change was the Finnish SDP’s understanding of their own actions in the general strike and even the January insurrection. Leaving aside feverish reactionaries,[32] most historians see the Me Vaadimme program as an attempt by the Social Democrats to offer a final olive branch to the bourgeoisie.

The party was fully aware of the strong pressure from below; thus the program was issued above all in order to relieve this pressure and find escape from the situation… It did not constitute a challenge to the basic structure of capitalist society but rather appears to have been a genuine attempt to settle the political crisis, motivated by the party’s desire to stave off the revolution.[33]

Thus while the SAJ Congress called the general strike, and the union leaders along with the Red Guards voted for insurrection, the SDP leaders hoped to channel the strike back into parliamentary channels. A very similar logic was also displayed by the SDP even in the process of insurrection in January. As Kuusinen pointed out, the hope of the leaders was that by taking up arms to suppress the bourgeoisie’s lust for blood, they could eventually return to “normal” conditions.[34] The proposed constitution put forward by the Finnish SDP called for a relatively more democratic and pro-worker, but still capitalist, society.[35]

[The SDP] seems to have thought, in a parody of Clausewitz’s dictum, that a civil war was a normal constitutional struggle carried out by other means. Therefore they saw no obstacle to going straight back to electoral politics after the war…this kind of thinking was a major reason why they found it so difficult to carry through their revolution effectively.[36]

When justifying their refusal to take power in November the SDP leaders had written that socialist revolution was impossible “in tiny, underdeveloped Finland in isolation”.[37] Sirola on February 3 suggested that revolution in other countries might change the dynamic, but argued that at this time the revolution was constrained to remain at a democratic stage, as conditions were not “ripe” for a socialist revolution.[38]

The contrast between the SDP’s desire to return to normality using revolutionary means and the attitude of the Bolsheviks is obvious. Lenin’s speech to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers the day of the October Revolution referenced both the new proletarian and peasants’ state power and the hopes for world socialist revolution.[39] This was the culmination of a year in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks had consistently emphasised the need for a revolutionary break with the bourgeois Provisional Government and had won the argument with workers on the need for a proletarian state.

Why was the SDP not included in state institutions?

Unlike other social democrats during this period, the SDP did not have a share of state power nor had it capitulated to the patriotic demands of World War I, as Finland had no army and was not subject to conscription since the 1905 revolution. Eric Blanc argues that this separation of the SDP from the bourgeois state was due to “Marxist class intransigence”. This ignores a number of more pressing reasons:

  • Finland was governed from 1807 as a “Grand Duchy”, with internal autonomy but subject to the Russian tsar.
  • Local government was elected only by the propertied classes and Social Democrats were thus excluded. This was the case up until the general strike, and demands for reform were part of the Me Vaadimme program.
  • After the acquisition of proportional parliamentary representation and universal suffrage for men and women over 24 following the 1905 revolution, the Finnish parliament was unable to pass any laws due to the tsar’s veto. The SDP only achieved a majority in 1916, and despite their electoral gains, the parliament did not convene until after the 1917 March Revolution due to the war.

Thus there were striking structural reasons that prevented the SDP from exercising any power whatsoever – there was no national government, and local government was monopolised by the bourgeoisie. Furthermore as already outlined, the unions were very weak until 1917, as was the case in the broader Russian empire. Their lack of legal status prevented the emergence of a bureaucratic and conservative layer of officials as occurred elsewhere, for example, in the German SPD.

When given the opportunity to form government after the revolution, the SDP leadership’s “class war” rhetoric was revealed as a paper tiger and they were gripped by indecision. In the debate on the SDP Council on 20 March, Kuusinen was one of those who argued against a socialist government “which would meet insuperable difficulties”,[40] and supported a coalition with the bourgeois parties despite the SDP holding a parliamentary majority. While the majority to support a coalition was very thin indeed – 10 for, 9 against – when the final offer was put by the bourgeois parties to the Socialists on 24 March, only Kuusinen and Manner dissented.[41] While the SDP Executive tried to have a bob each way by publicly saying that the socialists in government were individuals and not representative of the party, they clearly assented to the idea. This capitulation was then endorsed at the SDP’s national conference held in June, which voted 70 to 37 to uphold the decision to form the coalition government![42] Given that the SDP failed at the first opportunity of being afforded a share of power, and given the clear structural reasons for their exclusion from power, it is apparent their lack of inclusion in state institutions had a lot more to do with tsarism than “class intransigence”.

Why was the bourgeoisie hostile to the SDP?

Similar to other examples of unstable bourgeois democracies threatened by an insurgent working class, the bourgeoisie of Finland after the 1917 general strike had clearly determined that the working class needed to be crushed. A rough analogy could be drawn between Finland after the general strike and Italy after the occupation of the factories in 1920 – when the Italian Socialists also voted to abort the revolution.

The bourgeoisie’s task was given further urgency in Finland’s case by the lack of institutions of state repression, which had collapsed after March 1917. The only armed force, the Russian soldiers, were far more sympathetic than hostile to the Finnish workers. The establishment of the Red Guard and the Civil Guard led to a polarised situation which eventually had to result in the suppression of one by the other, given their conflicting class interests. The Red Guard’s membership heavily overlapped with that of the union movement and the SDP – one had to be a member of a union to join. By the end of January 1918 the Red Guard had tens of thousands of members, and crushing them would have crippled the workers’ movement as a whole.[43] The Finnish Communist Party (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue – SKP), established in September 1918 with key leaders of the SDP among its founders, wrote in a September 1918 letter to Lenin that the reason the SDP was impelled to revolt was that:

[A] proportion of the workers would have in any case have taken up arms to protect their rights; thousands of them must in any case have been butchered. It is questionable whether our organisations would have been spared, even if we had withdrawn from the struggle, and certainly had it done so it would have split the workers’ front.[44]

This was why, come January, even those members of the SDP leadership hostile to the revolution were largely silent.

Mounting pressure on the SDP from the left

While under threat from the bourgeoisie, particularly after the aborted insurrectionary general strike in November 1917, the SDP leadership was also facing increasing pressure from their left. Eric Blanc wishes to give credit for the formation of the Red Guards as a “national organisation” to the SDP. This is formally true, as outlined above; the SDP Executive “approved” the rules to establish the “Workers’ Security Guard” on 23 October 1917. But this decision, once again, came after numerous grassroots workers’ initiatives, and the push for their national consolidation came from the Helsinki Workers’ Council.[45] The first attempt to publically reorganise the Red Guard occurred on 12 May, at a meeting of veterans of 1906 in Helsinki, and that time was opposed by the SDP Executive. Again in June at their national congress the SDP voted against the re-foundation of the Guard. Despite the hostility of the Party leadership, by June hundreds of workers were already drilling in public squares in Helsinki, and this organisation – the Helsinki Workers’ Security Men – reported 1,500 members by 7 July. In Tampere in May the metalworkers’ union formed a guard of 300 that received training from Russian soldiers. Finally on 6 September the Helsinki Workers’ Council circulated instructions to all Helsinki trade unions to recruit a workers’ guard, and on 9 September asked the SDP to spread the movement nationally.[46]

Thus it was in fact only 44 days later (and after the election results) that the SDP leadership voted to “establish” the Workers’ Security Guard[47] on 23 October. This decision was also clearly defensive – whereas grassroots efforts to establish Guards took place earlier, the national SDP leadership only did so once the Civil Guards had begun to coalesce as a national movement after the August farm strikes and after having lost their parliamentary majority.

As already outlined, during the November general strike the Red Guards of the various urban centres, in particular Helsinki, had taken the initiative to crush threats of organised resistance from the bourgeoisie. This was done entirely without any directives emanating from the central leadership established by the SDP on 23 October. This show of independence was not accepted by the SDP however, which convened a Congress of Red Guards in Tampere from 16-19 December. The result of this congress saw the Guards subjected to the SDP leadership after a very unrepresentative delegate system[48] delivered two-thirds of the vote their way. Immediately afterwards however, the Finnish Bolshevik Adolf Taimi successfully moved a motion at a meeting of the Helsinki Red Guard to ignore the decisions of the Congress and elect its own leadership. In reporting to the Helsinki Workers’ Council Taimi said:

It is important, and in the interests of the Guard, to separate the Guard from Rightist organisations and also from trade union activity… all known revisionists should be excluded from our Guard, because the peaceful opinions which they represent are not revolutionary. I have been a revolutionary for years, and I hold it to be opportune now to set out on the revolutionary road.[49]

The Helsinki Red Guard occupied the vacated Russian Governor-General’s residence as its headquarters on 8 January and renamed it Smolny, after the Bolsheviks’ Petrograd centre. The SDP/SAJ Executives met on 10 January and despite some moderates calling for the Red Guard to be disowned, they were convinced by Kuusinen to maintain the unity of the workers’ movement in the face of “a further sharpening of the class struggle”.[50]

It was this action of the Red Guards that brought on the vote by the bourgeois government to establish a security force on January 12, which the Social Democrats rightly interpreted as “a class-war army which is directed against the Finnish working people”.[51] In the context of the bourgeois government beginning to create its own “class-war army”, the meeting of the SDP executive after the 12 January vote determined that it was more important than ever not to split with the Red Guard. Sirola explained why:

[I]f the workers get the idea, for example, that the [parliamentary] group is not with them, then the group will be pushed aside. In typical fashion Turkia summed up the view of his fellow SDP leaders: that we shall wait until the revolutionary moment comes, but not strive towards it, and certainly not desire it.[52]

The crucial meeting of the SDP Council that voted to incorporate Red Guard radicals into the leadership took place on 19-22 January, a week before the insurrection.[53] Far from putting forward any positive view for insurrection, Kuusinen argued:

Thus the struggle seems certainly to be beginning. One can have different opinions over whether or not it should be helped forward or prevented. It would not be sensible to argue about that here. We must accept matters on the basis that it is a reality which is certainly happening.[54]

This is what a passive approach to revolution sounds like. On the basis that the revolution “is a reality” Kuusinen suggested “real revolutionaries” be put into leadership, “otherwise, the more radical elements in the party will start moving on their own”.[55] Jukka Rahja spoke for the Bolsheviks and the contrast is very apparent:

[T]he party and its central leadership have betrayed the cause of revolution… If we do not take action at once, the bolder, more active members will leave the party… Now we must prepare against the bourgeoisie when arms are available… Put an end to empty speeches about policy and put the main effort into creating fighting organisations.[56]

Even at this crucial moment, the majority voted against the formation of a new committee. Only threats by Sirola, Manner, Kuusinen, Eloranta and Turkia to resign from the leadership forced the moderates to abstain and subsequently for the radicals to be brought in. Yet no proactive plan for insurrection was put forward, even as external events rapidly created an escalating conflict that the SDP leadership had to respond to.

The insurrection

Two events led directly to the insurrection of 28 January – the eruption of full-scale conflict and a general strike in Viipuri, and the decision by Lenin to send 15,000 rifles with machine guns and artillery to arm the Red Guards. The conflict in Viipuri began when local Red Guards, with Russian assistance, stormed a factory whose owner was helping to arm the Civil Guards on 19 January. In response 600 Civil Guards mobilised and on 22 January occupied Viipuri railway station. The Civil Guards were driven out overnight and on 23 January the Red Guard organised a general strike: “fight for the freedom of the workers. Victory or death, that is our battle cry”. Around the same time regional units of Civil Guards began to attack and disarm the heavily demobilised Russian garrisons north of Lake Ladoga and defeated the local Red Guard of Joensuu.[57]

When the SDP Executive considered these events on 24 January, Sirola introduced them as the beginning of civil war. The bourgeois government recognised them the same way and legislated for the Civil Guard to become the national army of Finland – an effective declaration of war – on 25 January.[58] It was only at this time that the SDP leaders began to consider what concrete actions would be necessary – the arrest of the government, the implementation of reforms in the interests of the workers, what kind of constitution the workers’ government would proclaim.[59]

At the same meeting, the SDP was considering the news that Lenin had organised the shipment of substantial weapons to the Red Guard. While not in itself a declaration of war, the mobilisation of the Guard along the path of the weapons shipment would likely require a general strike of workers and thus produce an insurrectionary situation. The first shipment arrived in Viipuri on 26 January and the overthrow of the government was proclaimed in Helsinki at 11pm on 27 January.

Thus when the time of insurrection arrived, it was not brought about because of the “clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass” that power should be taken[60]. This had been shown in November, and ignored by the SDP leaders. What had changed very clearly by the end of January was the attitude of the bourgeoisie and its aggressiveness. The SDP was caught between them and the radicalised workers.

Learning from bitter experience

Launching an insurrection after being forced into it by a bourgeoisie determined to reassert its rule, the SDP faced an uphill battle from the start, despite workers capturing all of the major cities of southern Finland with little bloodshed by 28 January. The White government, which based itself in Vaasa, was now prepared for armed conflict and had German backing, first with arms and by March 1918 with German soldiers. The result was the destruction of Finland’s infant workers’ state by May 1918 and the massacre and repression that were the legacies of Finland’s civil war.

The majority of the Finnish SDP leadership escaped the White terror in Finland and sought sanctuary in Soviet Russia. There, Kuusinen developed a damning assessment of the failures of the SDP, published as The Finnish Revolution: a Self-Criticism in 1918. Kuusinen, who had been a leading figure in the Social Democratic Party, and Peoples’ Deputy for Education in the revolutionary government, argued that the SDP “did not believe in revolution; we did not trust it, nor did we call for it”.

The relations of a consistent Social-Democracy with revolution are just as passive as those of a tolerant historian in respect to the revolutionaries of past times. “The Revolution is born, not made,” is the favourite expression of Social-Democracy, for it considers that it is not its sphere to work in support of revolution. It has on the contrary a tendency to delay the revolutionary explosion.[61] [Emphasis in original]

Kuusinen argued that the November 1917 general strike represented the best opportunity for successful insurrection, and also damned the lack of revolutionary will and leadership shown by the SDP, himself included, during the Civil War.[62] This assessment was broadly shared by most of the key leaders of the SDP, including Kullervo Manner, Yrjö Sirola, Haapalainen, Letonmäki and Eloranta, who assisted in the formation of the new communist party, the SKP.[63] This was illustrated by the letter written in the name of the Finnish Communist Party to Lenin from their inaugural congress on September 3, 1918, cited earlier. This letter was written by Kuusinen and recapitulated the arguments he had made in his Self-Criticism, but in the name of the new party. Of the stature of the leadership of the SKP, historian Anthony Upton remarked:

It is claimed, with considerable justification, that [the SKP] represented the great majority of the elected leadership of the old workers’ movement… One cannot seriously contest the claim of SKP to be a legitimate heir to the old Finnish workers’ movement.[64]

This leaves us with the reality that the “great majority” of the old leadership of the SDP – particularly those holding to “orthodox” Second International Marxism – had become convinced of the need for a new kind of politics.


The SDP leaders fought rather than betrayed and this does set them apart from most of the social democratic parties in the period of the World War and its revolutionary aftermath. However as I have endeavoured to show, the SDP bears the responsibility for the defeat of the potential for a successful workers’ revolution in Finland by virtue of their “orthodox” Second International politics. These politics saw them committed to the parliamentary road and the idea of gradual reform. Revolution remained an ornament in their world view. Having been conditioned by years of passive electoralism and a determinist view of class struggle, the “orthodox” SDP leaders proved unable to seize the time during the general strike despite the “clear, unambiguous will” of the working class for insurrection. While they did lead an insurrection in January it was forced onto them because of their exclusion from the state, unlike their openly counter-revolutionary cousins in Western Europe.

This brings us back to the conclusions of the Social Democratic leaders themselves – not just Kuusinen, but also Sirola, Haapalainen, Letonmäki, Eloranta and many others who formed the SKP in 1918. These socialists had come to understand the need for independent revolutionary organisation, even if they had yet to learn what that meant in practice. A political organisation is required that does not seek to integrate openly reformist currents into the party, and which understands the need to smash the capitalist state in favour of workers’ power. Also fundamentally, it has to be a party that can try to provide leadership to workers in the class struggle, leading up to and beyond the moment of insurrection. Otherwise, as is clearly shown with the Finnish SDP, the concept of revolution is just a hollow shell, which in reality hides a parliamentary and reformist approach.

Alapuro, Risto 1988, State and Revolution in Finland, University of California Press.

Blanc, Eric 2016, The Roots of 1917: Kautsky, the state, and revolution in Imperial Russia,

Blanc, Eric 2017a, Lessons from Finland’s 1917 Revolution,

Blanc, Eric 2017b, Assessing revolutionary social democracy: A response to Duncan Hart,

Finnish Communist Party 1918, An Open Letter to Lenin, People’s Russian Information Bureau.

Kirby, David 1976, “The Finnish Social Democratic Party and the Bolsheviks”, The Journal of Contemporary History, 11 (2).

Kirby, David 1986, “‘The Workers’ Cause’: Rank and File Attitudes and opinions in the Finnish Social Democratic Party 1905-1918”, Past and Present, 111 (1).

Kuusinen, Otto Wille 1919 (1918), The Finnish Revolution: a Self-Criticism, Workers’ Socialist Federation.

Lenin, V.I. 1972, Collected Works, Vol. 26, Progress Publishers.

Luxemburg, Rosa 1918, What Does the Spartacus League Want,

Newsinger, John 1990, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution: the case of Finland in 1917-1918”, Monthly Review, 41 (10).

Serge, Victor 1972, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Söderhjelm, Henning 1977, The Red Insurrection in Finland in 1918, Hyperion Press.

Upton, Anthony F. 1973, Communism in Scandinavia and Finland: Politics of Opportunity, Anchor Books.

Upton, Anthony F. 1980, The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918, University of Minnesota Press.

War Victims in Finland 1914-1922, last updated 19 May 2004,

[1] Serge 1972, pp182-191.

[2] War Victims in Finland 1914-1922.

[3] Leaving aside the Australian Labor Party which was not a classic social democratic party.

[4] Kuusinen 1919, p7.

[5] Upton 1980, p54.

[6] ibid., p311.

[7] “The Red Guard was to a certain extent the cuckoo’s brood in the nest of the [SDP]… It had become intoxicated with the March revolution of 1917. It therefore easily slipped into Bolshevism.” Söderhjelm 1977, p157.

[8] See for instance Blanc 2016.

[9] Blanc 2017b.

[10] “Nor were the Bolsheviks the sole party in the empire capable of leading workers to power. In many ways the experience of the Finnish SDP confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky.” Blanc 2017a.

[11] See for instance Alapuro 1988, Newsinger 1990, Kirby 1976 and Upton 1980.

[12] See for instance An Open Letter to Lenin, sent to him by the Finnish Communist Party after his botched assassination by Socialist Revolutionaries; Finnish Communist Party 1918.

[13] Upton 1980, p31.

[14] Alapuro 1988, p153.

[15] ibid., p29.

[16] ibid., pp56-69.

[17] ibid., p64.

[18] ibid., p159.

[19] ibid., p162.

[20] Upton 1980, p133.

[21] The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets voted to create a Soviet government on 8 November 1917, new style.

[22] Upton 1980, p148.

[23] Alapuro 1988, p154.

[24] The bourgeois parliamentary majority, while voting for these reforms, steadfastly refused to vote for their own death warrants and would not support the social democratic call to invest sovereign power in the parliament (the Valtalaki) or for a constituent assembly with the voting age lowered to 18 (from 24) – which shows the limitations of mass action that refuses to smash the bourgeois state!

[25] Upton 1980, p157.

[26] ibid., pp162-163.

[27] Kuusinen 1919, pp10-12.

[28] Upton 1980, p159.

[29] Civil Guards had been established in 271 of Finland’s 509 communes by September 1917, as compared to 37 communes having workers’ guards prior to their national “formation” on 23 October by the SDP. Alapuro 1988, p161.

[30] Upton 1980, p111.

[31] Take for instance the view of David Kirby in his study of the relationship between the Finnish SDP and the Bolsheviks: “The Radicals of the SDP such as Kuusinen and Yrjo Sirola supported the revolution less from conviction than from a sober acceptance of the fact that it was the only course left open to them if the party leadership were not to be swept aside”. Kirby 1976, p192.

[32] Söderhjelm 1977 is a good example, useful only to find out how the Finnish ruling class quickly constructed a nationalist narrative that explained away the Civil War as due to “Bolshevik infection”.

[33] Alapuro 1988, p165. See also Upton 1980, p135.

[34] Kuusinen 1919, pp18-19.

[35] Alapuro 1988, p169. See also Kirby 1986, p163.

[36] Upton, 1980, p302.

[37] ibid., p162.

[38] ibid., p304.

[39] Lenin 1972, pp239-241.

[40] Upton 1980, p29.

[41] ibid.

[42] Newsinger 1990, p27.

[43] Kirby 1986, pp157-158.

[44] Finnish Communist Party 1918, p4.

[45] Thirty-seven communes already had workers’ guards before the national call was made by the SDP; Alapuro 1988, p161.

[46] Upton 1980, p115.

[47] Despite becoming known as Red Guards, the Helsinki Workers’ Council and the SDP chose to call workers’ militias the “Workers’ Security Guard” in order to avoid revolutionary connotations that were a hangover of the Red Guard support for insurrection in 1906.

[48] One vote for Guards with fewer than 1,000 members, two votes for those with more members.

[49] Upton 1980, p220.

[50] ibid., p225.

[51] ibid., p230.

[52] Valtionarkisto (Helsinki), Karl Wiik kokoelma, K. H. Wiik dagboks anteckningar från åren 1917 och 1918, pp132-133, cited in Upton 1980, p231.

[53] Those added were Taimi, Haapalainen, Kiviranta, Letonmäki and Elo.

[54] Työväen Arkisto (Helsinki), 329.471.5.1918 (Puolueneuvosto, 19-21.1.18), cited in Upton 1980, p242.

[55] Upton 1980, p243.

[56] ibid.

[57] ibid., p250.

[58] Alapuro, 1988, p172.

[59] Upton 1980, p253.

[60] Luxemburg 1918.

[61] Kuusinen 1919, pp7-8.

[62] ibid., p9 and p19.

[63] All of the figures named were members of the People’s Delegation, the government of Red Finland. As far as I am aware every member of the Red government apart from ex-prime minister Oskari Tokoi, who joined the Whites in the Russian Civil War, backed the formation of the SKP.

[64] Upton 1973, pp116-117.

From revolutionary possibility to fascist defeat: The French Popular Front of 1936-38

Sandra Bloodworth draws on the French experience to refute reformist calls for a revival of Popular Front strategies.

Socialist alternatives: The Portuguese Revolution

Joel Geier revisits the inspiring revolution that took place in Portugal 50 years ago, toppling a fascist regime, but ultimately missing an opportunity to progress to workers’ power and socialism. His eye-witness account provides valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary movement.

The Italian left and the factory councils: 1919-1920

Luca Tavan reexamines the revolutionary upsurge in Italy following WW1, drawing out strategic errors made by Gramsci and the leadership of the Italian Communist Party.