“The axe without an edge”: social democracy and the Finnish Revolution of 1918

Issue: 159

John Newsinger

The failure of the October Revolution to spread throughout Europe, and beyond, in the years after 1917 is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Indeed, many of the catastrophes that subsequently beset humanity including both Stalinism and Nazism are consequences of that failure. Understanding the reasons for the failure of the working class in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere to take power during the years of revolutionary turmoil that accompanied the end of the First World War and continued through to 1923 in Europe is still of considerable importance. The starting point for any such discussion has to be the first defeat that the international working class was to suffer in the aftermath of the October Revolution: the defeat of the Finnish Revolution and the White Terror imposed on Finnish workers by the victorious forces of reaction. The Finnish Revolution is particularly instructive because it shows what might well have been the outcome in Russia itself if the Mensheviks had prevailed over the Bolsheviks in July 1917: not bourgeois democracy but military dictatorship and a White Terror, a White Terror, moreover, that in Russia would, without any doubt, have cost the lives of a significant proportion of the country’s Jewish population, with hundreds of thousands massacred. The fate of the Finnish Revolution is of vital concern. So what factors led to revolution in Finland and what factors account for its defeat?

The Grand Duchy

Finland had been a province of Sweden until 1809 when it was annexed by Tsar Alexander I. It was overwhelmingly agricultural with a largely Swedish-speaking minor aristocracy ruling over an impoverished Finnish-speaking population. The nobility effortlessly transferred their allegiance to Tsarism, with many of their sons serving as officers in the Tsarist Army. The Grand Duchy was granted considerable autonomy for most of the 19th century. Indeed, according to historian Anthony Upton, for “most practical purposes”, the Tsars ruled the country as a “sovereign state”.1

From the 1870s Finland began to industrialise. The Grand Duchy’s population grew from 1.7 million in 1870 to over 3.2 million in 1914 (and this was despite the nearly half a million emigrants, most shipping out to the United States). Whereas in 1870 industrial production was valued at only £3 million, by 1914 it was valued at £40 million. According to one historian, the growth rate of the Finnish economy in the 1890s was “one of the fastest in Europe” with the share of industry and construction in GDP in that decade increasing “from 13 to 25 percent”. More generally, between 1860 and 1913, Finnish GDP “increased fivefold…with the 1890s the period of most rapid growth”.2 The growth of the railway system was spectacular: from 67 miles of track in the 1860s to 2,500 miles by 1914. And this industrial development bought into being the industrial working class. The number of industrial workers rose from 28,000 in 1885 to 81,000 in 1905 and 110,000 in 1914. The great majority of the working class was still made up of landless labourers, with more than 850,000 men and women working on the land in 1900, living in often dire poverty.

The first trade unions were formed in the 1890s, and in 1899 the first socialist organisation, the Finnish Workers Party (WP), was set up. The WP changed its name to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) at its 1903 congress. From the very beginning Finnish socialists looked to the German Social Democrats for inspiration and example, with Karl Kautsky serving as their “master theoretician”.3 His works were routinely translated into Finnish while Lenin remained virtually unknown. As far as the SDP leadership was concerned, the party was an orthodox Marxist organisation that rejected reformism and reformist illusions as offering any route to socialism, rejected revolutionary activity as adventurism and instead looked to historical development as the motor of socialism that would inevitably bring it about, even showing the ruling class that resistance was futile. Socialism was to be introduced not through the agency of the working class but would come about as part of an irresistible historical process of economic and social development that would work itself out for the benefit of the working class. With this strategic view, it was only a small step for working class self-activity to be seen as an actual obstacle to socialism, risking the derailment of the historical process by unreasonable demands and premature action. Alongside this Kautskyite political strategy, the SDP also embraced the “stages” understanding of historical development that was the orthodoxy of Russian Marxists, both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, at this time. From this perspective, Finland was a backward country that still had to go through the bourgeois stage of development, a stage that would require a bourgeois revolution led by the agents of the capitalist class. The role they assigned to the working class in this process was one of acting in support of bourgeois demands, participating in the revolution “as auxiliaries under the leadership of the progressive bourgeoisie”,4 improving and strengthening the position of the working class, but nevertheless limiting working class demands to those compatible with bourgeois society and capitalism. All this would be put to the test in 1905.

At the same time as the Finnish labour movement was taking shape, Tsar Nicholas II, who succeeded to the Imperial throne in 1894, attempted to curb Finnish autonomy and carry through a programme of “Russification”. Russian was made the official language and the rouble the official currency. The degree of control and oversight exercised from St Petersburg was dramatically increased. What aroused most opposition was the extension of conscription to the Grand Duchy in 1901. A petition of protest against “Russification” signed by half a million people was collected but the Tsar refused even to meet the delegation. He predictably ignored all the protests, ordering his governor-general Nicholay Bobrikov to press ahead. The introduction of conscription met with considerable opposition, with many young men refusing to serve. In April 1902 less than half of those conscripted reported for duty. In Helsinki, where 870 young men were conscripted, only 38 reported, with large crowds greeting them with “derisive shouts and ­whistles”. There were serious clashes on the streets the following day with the Cossacks riding protesters down, whipping them and slashing at them with their swords. They “were met by a hail of stones and turned back”.5 The situation continued to deteriorate, culminating in the assassination of Bobrikov on 16 July 1904.

1905 and after

What transformed the situation was the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1905. There were a number of demonstrations and protests in Finland early in the year involving both the left and the right, demanding the restoration of Finnish autonomy and supporting the protests in Russia. On 24 and 25 January there were demonstrations across the country against the Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg. These protests often had a mass character with the demonstration against the police in Helsinki on 9 April mobilising some 30,000 people, a third of the city’s population. Protests spread throughout the country, including into rural districts where landless labourers and tenant farmers took the lead. On 6 August there were nationwide protests against government repression. This culminated in the decision by the SDP and trade union leaderships, who were coming under increasing pressure from their rank and file, to call a general strike that began on 30 October. The general strike had widespread support. Civil servants and the police joined the walkout and in many areas, both in the towns and the countryside, the strikers established Red Guard units that effectively took control of their localities, enforcing the strike, taking over police stations and workplaces and imposing working class control. The landlords and employers responded to this by setting up their own White Guard units, popularly known as the “Butchers of the People”, that relied heavily on recruiting right wing university students. The SDP leadership was terrified by what it had unleashed. The Red Guards were a rank and file organisation, not under party control, and they took a far more radical line than the SDP leadership, favouring direct action rather than electoralism. When Nicholas II issued his 4 November manifesto promising to restore Finnish autonomy with a parliament elected by universal suffrage, giving both men and women the vote, the SDP leadership rushed to call off the general strike on 6 November. They put more faith in the Tsar’s promises than they did in the workers!

The general strike had demonstrated that, while the stoppage had been called to demand the restoration of Finnish autonomy, as far as the strikers themselves were concerned it was a chance to settle accounts with employers and landowners. Indeed, the Helsinki strike committee actually called on the Red Guard to remain in existence, ready “for a new, even more severe battle, which the proletariat will wage from now on against the bourgeoisie”. This was, of course, not at all what the SDP leadership had in mind, pressing instead for the Red Guard to disband and doing their best to weaken it. For its part, the Red Guard leadership established close relations with revolutionaries within the ranks of the Russian garrison, in particular the Russian sailors stationed in Finland. In July 1906 they supported an attempted naval mutiny at the Sveaborg fortress in Helsinki harbour, calling for a renewed general strike. The SDP leadership refused and the mutiny was put down. In the aftermath the Red Guard was effectively suppressed by the authorities, but not before a bloody clash with White Guards and the police in Helsinki that left two Red Guards and five White Guards dead. Upton describes this clash as “the first blood…in the Finnish Civil War”.6 The following month at the party congress in Oulu the SDP formally rejected violent revolution and committed itself to work through the new parliament conceded by the Tsar, voting in favour of disbanding the Red Guard. As one historian has put it, the SDP “constituted a radical opposition, but not one that would resort to anything other than legal methods”.7

While this brief taste of revolution had terrified the SDP leadership, it had nevertheless transformed the political situation in Finland. The SDP itself saw its membership dramatically increase from 16,000 at the start of 1905 to 45,000 by the end of the year, continuing to rise throughout 1906 until it reached 85,000 in October. By the end of 1906 it was “the strongest socialist party in relative terms in the world”.8 In the parliamentary elections of 1907, with 38 percent of the votes, it won 80 out of 200 seats making a particularly strong showing in rural districts. Its vote was to increase year after year until 1916.

The conclusion that the SDP leadership drew from the events of 1905 was not that revolutionary struggle actually produced results, but that it was to be avoided at all costs. Instead the party was built up as an effective electoral machine and inevitably began embracing reformism in practice, even while rejecting it in theory. Its members and supporters demanded improvements in their lives now and if they were to be persuaded that struggle was not the way forward, then this required parliamentary action delivering reforms. The problem with this was that it all rested on the goodwill of the Tsar. Once the revolutionary tide had turned, he proceeded to ignore the Finnish parliament, vetoing its legislation, effectively emasculating it and, by 1910, formally restricting its role to a purely consultative one. The only reform that the SDP had to show for all its electoral success in the years before the First World War was a measure regulating working hours in bakeries. This failure inevitably led to a decline in party membership, which had fallen to 52,000 by 1910, but the SDP nevertheless successfully maintained its parliamentary presence.

The revolutionary turmoil of 1905-6 had also given the trade unions a great boost with increased militancy and a growing readiness to fight. In 1904 there had been 36 major strikes, 93 in 1905 (excluding the general strike), 174 in 1906, 176 in 1907 and 128 in 1908. According to one somewhat hysterical contemporary right wing commentator, Henning Söderhjelm: “Strike followed upon strike; the distrust of employers and foremen was unlimited”.9 The employers responded to this militancy by importing scabs from Russia, with wholesale victimisation and blacklisting, and successfully contained the movement. 1907 also saw the formation of the Suomen Ammattijärjestö (SJA), the Finnish TUC. As far as the union leaders were concerned, “it became the major—almost the only—task of the unions to try to prevent strikes”.10

War and Revolution

The impact of the First World War was to once again open up the door to revolution in both Russia and Finland. Russia led the way but the hardship and suffering inflicted on the working class, both industrial and rural, in Finland made conflict inevitable. Once again the SDP found itself confronted with the challenge of revolution.

The war brought with it a raging inflation that had cut real wages by a third by the start of 1917. Many workers were left cold and hungry with their food consumption falling dramatically. In 1915 average consumption per head of wheat was 459kg, of rye 174kg and of potatoes 127kg. By 1917 the average had fallen to 8.6kg of wheat, 61kg of rye and 113kg of potatoes. Working class life in Finland as in every other combatant country involved endless queuing for food and other necessities that as often as not were unavailable or sold out, the shelves empty. While the rich continued to wine and dine regardless, for the working class there was a real fear of mass starvation.11 This led to a great revival of militancy with the trade unions seeing their membership increase from only 30,000 in 1916 to 165,000 the following year. The number of strikes rose dramatically. In 1914 there had been 37 strikes involving 6,200 workers whereas 1917 was to see 483 strikes involving nearly 140,000 workers who were out for 2 million days.12 These strikes were often accompanied by violence as scabs were cleared off the job, foremen were roughed up and working class control was imposed. Söderhjelm complained bitterly of how “strikes broke out one after another”, and of how even after concessions were made, “new causes for strikes were continually found”. He was particularly outraged by the unrest in “the agricultural world” where there was “strike upon strike…among the farm hands” who were demanding that the foreman be discharged for striking as there was “something the matter with the food or the houses”. A lot of it was just “pure spitefulness” that a reliable police force should have put a stop to, as far as he was concerned.13 The revival of militancy provided a tremendous boost for the SDP which again saw its membership rise—from 52,000 in 1916 to over 120,000 in 1917. While there was a growing left wing within the SDP, the party still remained firmly committed to electoralism and parliamentarianism. Its moment came in the summer of 1916 when the Tsar allowed a general election. The SDP received 47.3 percent of the votes and won 103 seats, becoming the first socialist party in the world to win a parliamentary majority. Nicholas II responded to this result by refusing to allow the newly elected parliament to meet, a decision that the SDP leadership tamely accepted. But the situation was changed by the outbreak of revolution in Russia and the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917.

The revolution arrived in Finland with the mutiny of Russian sailors, seizing control of warships and overthrowing their officers (38 officers were killed in the process). Arvo Tuominen later recalled how the revolution spread to the socialist stronghold of Tampere with armed Russian marines going to a restaurant where naval officers were eating a far better meal than their men had ever had:

A red rosette was placed in front of each officer. Somewhat hesitantly the surprised diners, one after the other, fastened the rosettes to their tunics. Only the fleet commander—a rear admiral…refused. The leader of the marines thereupon pulled out a revolver, gestured with it and demanded, “V goluvu ili v grud?”—“In the forehead or the chest?” With trembling hands the grey-haired admiral fumbled with the rosette and fastened it to the front of his tunic.14

In Helsinki a soviet was established with Russian soldiers and sailors leading the way, but the way was cleared for the working class to take over. How did the SDP leadership respond? They remained absolutely committed to the parliamentary road. The provisional government that was set up in Petrograd allowed the Finnish Parliament to assemble. This presented the SDP with a dilemma as they had a majority. As far as they were concerned, Finland still had to go through the “bourgeois stage” of development. The workers’ time had not yet come. They resolved this dilemma by going into coalition with the parties of the right. A coalition government, headed by Oskari Tokoi and consisting of six SDP ministers and six from the parties of the right, took office. Looking back on the decision to go into coalition with the parties of the right, Otto Kuusinen, later to become one of the leaders of the Finnish CP and of the Comintern, although a “centrist” at the time, described it as an “immoral union”. He blamed the decision on the influence of “the Russian Mensheviki”. The decision had been hotly contested within the SDP with many opposed to it, but as Kuusinen admitted, this opposition “was of so passive a nature that it did not hinder for a single moment our collaboration with those socialists who were hob-nobbing with Finnish and Russian landowners”. The bulk of the SDP fell prey, he admits, to “the vague phantom of parliamentary democracy”. And under increasing pressure from rank and file militancy outside parliament, the coalition government did introduce a number of reforms: a system of food rationing, the eight-hour day, the democratisation of local government (which had had a property franchise excluding the working class). These reforms, he subsequently recalled, “played their part in lulling us in the illusions of parliamentarianism”. What they did not recognise at the time was the extent to which these reforms were “the product of the tempestuous wind from without”.15 Tuominen, another future leader of Finnish Communism, remembered being:

Like almost everyone else…enthralled by parliamentarianism…parliamentarianism seemed to me to be the only saving faith… We cheered and praised Parliament. We had dreamed of a socialist society as a devout Christian dreams of the Kingdom of Heaven and now had tangible evidence that this ideal could be realised step by step through parliamentary means.

These illusions were to be shattered, as far as he was concerned, at the end of July 1917 when, as we shall see, Alexander Kerensky sent in Russian troops loyal to the provisional government to close the parliament down.16

Even while the coalition government was passing its reforms, which often remained just on paper, the conditions under which the working class were living and working continued to deteriorate, worsened by rising unemployment. One consequence of this was that while the SDP leadership and many party activists were completely enamoured with parliamentarianism, among the working class there was a growing disillusionment, and a growing demand for action, for the workers to take control. At the time, though, as Juha Siltala has pointed out, there were “few Bolsheviks among the Finnish socialists”. Most of the party leadership were either completely opposed to revolution, a position legitimised by the “stages theory” or, like Kuusinen, were “centrists” who, “changed their position according to the situation”.17 At the SDP congress in June the delegates voted to endorse participation in the coalition government by 70 votes to 37, but the minority chose to remain in the party. At worst the SDP leaders were opposed to revolution altogether and at best they could be carried along by the tide of working class militancy and unrest. But there was no recognition of the need to prepare for the revolutionary overthrow of Finnish capitalism and the establishment of workers’ power, to organise the most advanced workers for the struggle and to provide leadership. There was no recognition of the need for an independent revolutionary party dedicated to working class revolution. Looking back, Tokoi actually complained about the “revolutionary and even anarchistic element” that was joining the SDP. There was a “wild increase” in membership that was “unhealthy and caused the party to swerve from the path it had marked out”.18

The decisive moment came when the coalition government declared Finland independent in July 1917. The Bolsheviks had made clear their support for Finnish independence and it looked as if they were likely to take power. But in the “July Days”, Kerensky triumphed, the Bolsheviks were driven underground, many were arrested and Lenin himself was forced to take refuge in Finland. As far as Kerensky was concerned, the Finnish declaration of independence was treasonous and he suspended the parliament, sending troops loyal to the provisional government to close it down and to crush any resistance. The SDP denounced all this as an illegal coup d’etat, but predictably did nothing. Meanwhile, the parties of the right began preparations for a settling of accounts with the Finnish working class, covertly establishing White Guard units. Even though they supported Finnish independence they welcomed Kerensky’s overthrow of the Tokoi government, and with his endorsement established a government of the right without the SDP. At the same time they were also increasingly looking to Imperial Germany as an ally who would not only support Finnish independence but would also assist in crushing the left. As Upton puts it, “the bourgeois feared that the whole fabric of law and order, and with it the sanctity of property and the ordered hierarchy of society, might collapse”.19 While the SDP prevaricated, the right was actually preparing for revolution, that is, it was preparing to put it down. They began smuggling in large quantities of German weapons to arm the White Guard. Regardless of the SDP leadership, however, the working class did fight back. In August there was a general strike against food shortages in Helsinki and the Red Guard was re-established, recruiting thousands of members. By early November it was some 50,000 strong.

Kerensky ordered fresh elections which the SDP denounced as illegal. As far as they were concerned the Tokoi government was still the legal government, but they nevertheless, in the end, decided to participate. The general election took place early in October in conditions of increasing conflict and unrest with the SDP leadership terrified that a working class revolt was imminent regardless of whatever they did. As far as Kuusinen was concerned, it was vital that “a general rising of the people must be held off until the election is declared”, while another party leader, Matti Turkia, complained that “the people cannot be got to obey”.20 They confidently expected to win the general election and to then be confronted with the task of somehow managing working class unrest, deflecting the workers from revolution. In the event, even though the SDP vote went up numerically, their share of the vote went down, so that they lost their parliamentary majority to the parties of the right. The SDP was reduced to 92 seats leaving the parties of the right with a parliamentary majority. The problem for the SDP leadership was that the working class was in no mood to stand by while a right wing government proceeded to attack them and to destroy the labour movement. Finnish workers were not prepared to accept a situation where the wealthy, those who always had plenty of food and lived in grand houses, decided that the working class should starve and freeze, should be homeless and unemployed, have their living standards reduced even more. The hard truth was that the crisis that confronted the working class was not one that could be resolved at the ballot box.

Looking back on these elections from a Bolshevik perspective, Kuusinen later put the result down to electoral fraud with “whole masses of Social Democratic voting papers” going missing, to the parties of the right uniting behind the same candidates, but mainly to “the nascent disgust at parliamentarianism among the mass of the proletariat”. Even those workers who went out to vote SDP had lost faith both in parliamentarianism and in the SDP because of the decision to go into coalition with the right and the Tokoi government’s failure effectively to protect their interests and defend their living standards. There was no enthusiasm for the SDP among the workers, no expectation that it could solve their problems and, even though the party’s vote went up, the right was much more successful at mobilising its supporters. Indeed, there was great enthusiasm on the right and a strong belief that a decisive settling of accounts with the left was imminent.21 By now the country was already in a state of nascent civil war with the right determined to prosecute it to victory, while the SDP leadership still desperately hoped to find some way to avoid conflict, absolutely refused to prepare for it and when forced to fight by pressure from the rank and file was half-hearted about it, always looking for the first opportunity to call it off.

With pressure for action from the working class growing and with the Russian garrison in the country having declared for the Bolsheviks, the SDP leadership was inevitably pulled to the left, however reluctantly. As one of the party’s leaders, someone very much on the left of the party, Kullervo Manner, put it at the time: “We cannot avoid the revolution for very long…faith in the value of peaceful activity is lost and the working class is beginning to trust only in its own strength…if we are mistaken about the rapid approach of revolution, I would be delighted”.22 On 1 November the SDP issued a militant manifesto, “We Demand”, calling for the state takeover of the food industry, the dissolution of the White Guards, old age pensions, free healthcare, increased taxation of the rich, a purge of reactionary elements from the state machine and from parliament, land reform, the implementation of measures introduced by the Tokoi government such as the eight-hour day, the democratisation of local government and the election of a national assembly. As Risto Alapuro has pointed out, however, the manifesto was not intended as a rallying call for revolution, but was “motivated by the party’s desire to stave off the revolution”.23 They still hoped for “a legal revolution”.24 The right, however, refused even to allow any discussion of the manifesto in parliament. In the circumstances, the SDP joined together with the trade unions to establish a Workers’ Revolutionary Council which they hoped could force the parties of the right into some sort of compromise, compelling them to accept enough of the “We Demand” manifesto to head off revolution. This hope was effectively crushed both by the determination of the right and by the militancy of the workers, urged on by the Russian Bolsheviks. On 14 November the Workers’ Revolutionary Council launched a general strike.

General strike

The government was caught unprepared. They had not expected such action, being accustomed to the SDP leadership invariably capitulating rather than making a fight of it. On this occasion, however, the SDP was forced into action. According to historian C Jay Smith, certainly no sympathiser of the left, the general strike saw the country “completely in the hands of the Red Guards… Factories were shut down; stores were closed; trains stopped running; only one newspaper, that of the strikers appeared on the streets”.25 The Red Guard, 50,000 strong, was mobilised, and with the support of Russian soldiers and sailors, took over the towns and extended the general strike into the countryside. They occupied police stations and set about disarming the White Guards, arresting 200 of them in the process. The minister of the interior, Allan Serlachius, who was busy organising the White Guards, was arrested in Helsinki. By the end of the general strike 34 people had been killed, overwhelmingly rightists. Effectively, the country was in the hands of the workers. The SDP leadership was horrified by what they had unleashed. As Upton, a historian much more sympathetic to the left than Jay Smith puts it, the SDP leaders were “the most miserable revolutionaries in history behaving throughout like men contemplating their own funerals”. The general strike had “massive, spontaneous support from all levels of the working class”. It “was enormously successful…within 48 hours most of the country was firmly under the control of revolutionary committees”. This was the work of “spontaneous local initiative… The workers had delivered the country into the hands of their leaders through their instinctive mass solidarity”. All their leaders wanted, though, was to hand it back to the bourgeoisie. They were desperate for a way out. Kuusinen, a long way from his later Bolshevism, appealed to the right for concessions. He spoke in parliament, warning of “disturbances…if we who want to calm the workers down, do not get some concrete results from parliament now”.26 Another party leader, Karl Wiiks, privately compared revolution to modern painting so that “at a distance one can discover form and beauty”, but close up it was all “chaos and ugliness”.27 The SDP leadership were fearful that the Red Guards might actually invade parliament, shut it down and forcibly install them in power.

Recognising that they were not yet ready for a decisive showdown, the right offered concessions, promising reforms, and the SDP leadership, to the immense disgust of the rank and file, called the general strike off on 20 November. According to Risto Alapuro, there was “great resentment and bitterness” at what was a self-inflicted defeat, courtesy of their leaders.28 And for many workers, there was a very real fear of victimisation and of reprisals for their actions during the strike at the hands of the police and the White Guards. As Victor Serge was to put it: “It was a revolution aborted”.29

How does Upton sum up these events? His The Finnish Revolution 1917-1918 still remains, nearly 40 years after it was first published, the definitive and indispensable account of these events. He shares Serge’s belief that the Finnish Revolution had been effectively “aborted” with the calling off of the general strike and the failure to seize power. The strike had caught the right unprepared and was the moment the workers should have taken over. This is certainly what many workers expected and hoped for. Instead:

The socialist leaders had shown by their deeds that…they had no intention or desire to lead a revolution, but that throughout their policy had been to prevent it if they could, not just because they feared the bourgeois enemy, but even more because they were fundamentally afraid of their own mass following.30

They had surrendered the initiative to the right which was to take full advantage of the situation, acting with a ruthless determination that put the SDP to shame.

An extraordinary congress of the SDP was held only a week after the general strike was called off. There was a fierce debate between those determined to hold to the parliamentary road and those advocating revolution. For the right, Seth Heikkila actually advocated a return to coalition government with the parties of the right, while for the left, Eero Haapalainen urged that the workers were determined to take power and that the SDP should recognise this and give the lead. The left case was bolstered by the contribution of the fraternal delegate from the Russian Bolsheviks, a certain Joseph Stalin. He brought “joyful news of the victories of the Russian Revolution”, made clear the Bolshevik government’s support for Finnish self-determination and urged the SDP to take up the struggle for workers’ power. He went on:

Comrades…your country is experiencing approximately the same crisis of power as Russia experienced on the eve of the October Revolution… In the midst of war and economic disruption, in the midst of the revolutionary movement which is flaring up in the West and of the increasing victories of the workers’ revolution in Russia, there are no dangers or difficulties that could withstand your onslaught. In such a situation only one power, socialist power, can maintain itself and conquer. In such a situation only one kind of tactics can be effective, the tactics of Danton—audacity, audacity and again audacity!31

The SDP congress voted 59 to 43 against the revolutionary seizure of power. They chose timidity, timidity and again timidity.32

Civil War and White Terror

While the SDP leadership had surrendered, the working class movement was still strong and militant and had certainly not given up the fight. In December the local Soviet in Helsinki demanded that the municipality pay the costs of the general strike, including paying the strikers their lost wages, and threatening that they would take the city over if their demand was not met. A delegation from the SDP leadership met with them and pleaded with them to abandon this demand because it might bring the right wing government down “and the working class would be forced to put power into the hands of the workers”. The municipality offered instead to introduce a public works scheme to provide employment for the unemployed and the SDP persuaded the soviet to accept that concession instead of taking over the city.33 But while the SDP leadership desperately tried to restrain the workers, the parties of the right were preparing for civil war. As Serge put it, while the general strike “had shown the workers their strength”, to “the bourgeoisie it had revealed their danger”.34

The newly established right wing Svinhufvud government set about building up its forces for a showdown with the left, looking to Imperial Germany for assistance. They were committed to independence from Russia, but as a monarchy with the German Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse installed as king, accepting client status in return for German weapons and troops.35 The government appointed Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a Finnish nobleman and former Tsarist general, to raise and command its White Army. He had hoped to assist in the overthrow of the Bolsheviks and the restoration of Tsarism, but had come to “despair” of Russia, whereas in Finland there was, as he put it, “an unbroken determination to fight”.36 As was the way with much of the Finnish nobility, he spoke Swedish, Russian and passable French, but not Finnish! The backbone of the White Army was provided by the arrival of some one thousand Finnish volunteers, the Jägers, who had been trained for service in the German Army, many of them as officers. They were reinforced by another thousand volunteers from Sweden, once again many of whom had military training. And the Germans provided large quantities of weapons. The White Army was eventually to reach a strength of some 70,000 men.

Confronted with White preparations for civil war and determination to crush the left and urged on by the Red Guards, the SDP was finally driven to take action. As far as the party leadership was concerned, this was very much a reluctant and defensive step. Once again, as one of the party leaders, Matti Turkia, put it, they did not “strive towards” revolution, and certainly did not “desire it”, but as it became clear that the Whites intended the destruction of the labour movement a response from the SDP leadership became necessary, not least because the workers were already beginning to fight back. On 23 January 1918 the decision was taken to confront the government, although this did not mean that concessions might not still have led the party to retreat. As far as the SDP leadership was concerned they went into the fight “with very little enthusiasm…in order to preserve and strengthen democracy against a perceived threat of bourgeois repression”. Even at this stage, “social revolution had no place on the agenda” and this was to remain the case throughout the civil war.37 On the 27th, however, the Helsinki Soviet and the Red Guards took control of the city. The Svinhufvud government fled Helsinki and established itself at Vaasa and Svinhufvud himself ended up in Berlin.38 The SDP set up a revolutionary government, in effect the SDP executive, headed by Manner but with the intention not of dispossessing the landlords and capitalists and establishing workers’ power, but instead creating “a democratic, parliamentary republic with a controlled capitalist economy”.39

The civil war was to last for three months. Mannerheim made clear what was at stake with his statement that “the Reds have risen in armed rebellion against the social order and the punishment is death”, although even he was shocked by the excesses of the White Terror that was unleashed and feared it might discredit their cause internationally.40 The Whites were urged on to exact a dreadful vengeance on the Reds in retaliation for their supposed atrocities by a hysterical right wing press.41 Meanwhile Red Guard strength grew to over 100,000 men and women, perhaps as many as 140,000, there are no reliable figures (there were many women in non-combatant roles in the Red Guard along with some 2,000 women volunteers fighting in the ranks42) and there can be no doubt about the enthusiasm with which workers threw themselves into the struggle. The problem was, however, that they were poorly armed and badly organised and led, without an effective intelligence organisation, and the revolutionary government remained, at best, half-hearted throughout the war. The SDP leadership did not want to destroy their enemy, but rather hoped to force them to come to terms. After all, as the “stages theory” taught, the time was not ripe for socialism. The Whites had no such inhibitions. And the hoped for assistance from the Bolsheviks did not materialise, although there were many Russian soldiers, perhaps a thousand, who actually fought in the ranks of the Finnish Red Guard. The Bolshevik government was too embroiled with its own difficulties to send help and moreover was determined to avoid confrontation with the German military and put the vital Brest-Litovsk Treaty at risk. The result was that despite often fierce resistance, the White Army began driving the Reds back. What is often described as the decisive battle was fought for control of the Red stronghold of Tampere, a town of 45,000 people. After an assault involving brutal street by street fighting that saw over 600 White soldiers and 1,800 Reds killed, the town was captured on 6 April. The Whites now exacted a terrible vengeance, summarily executing all the Russian and suspected Russian prisoners taken in the fighting, including the wounded in the hospital together with the medical personnel, between 200 and 500 men were killed. They also executed some 90 Russian civilians living in the town who had been uninvolved in the fighting. In effect, the Whites were carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing with Russians, whether involved in the fighting or not, being “killed because of their nationality” everywhere they went.43 Upton describes this massacre of the Russians as “a simple act of genocide”.44 Soon after, when Vyborg fell to the Whites, over 300 more Russians were summarily executed. The number of Finnish Reds executed at Tampere was, according to Upton, 150. Thousands more were despatched to prison camps.45

Even though the defeat at Tampere was a serious blow to the Reds, it was not sufficient to have lost the war. There was no reason to believe that the Reds would not recover from the setback, especially if the Bolsheviks managed to send assistance. The setback might have radicalised the revolutionary government and seen more revolutionary elements prepared to wage war with more determination and ruthlessness at last begin to take repressive action against the capitalists and landowners who were left unmolested behind the Red lines. What was decisive was the intervention of German troops. This tipped the balance against the Reds and ensured that there would be no Bolshevik assistance. The German troops, some 12,000 altogether, began landing at the beginning of April and immediately advanced on Helsinki, which was occupied on 12-13 April. In his account, Victor Serge writes of “a bitter street battle” in the city with the Germans and the Whites making “workers’ wives and children march in front of them—around a hundred of these were killed… A Swedish newspaper published the following item: ‘Forty Red women who were said to have had arms were led out on the ice and shot without trial’”.46 By the end of April the civil war was over and the Whites and their German allies were triumphant. The revolutionary government fled to Russia along with thousands of others trying to escape the White Terror. Mannerheim held a victory parade on 16 May. Not until 29 August 1918 was the Finnish Communist Party formed across the frontier in Russia.47

The White Terror continued unabated. According to Upton over 8,380 prisoners held in the camps were to be executed without trial, including 364 women and 58 prisoners under 16, the youngest only 12 years old. They were often selected for execution by local landowners and capitalists more for the trouble they had caused in the past and might still cause in the future than for any involvement in the fighting. Trade union militants and socialist activists were singled out and put up against the wall and shot. At its height, from 5 until 11 May, the repression saw 200 executions a day. At the Hennala camp some 500 prisoners were executed over a two-week period, nearly 200 of them women. Another 265 prisoners were executed after “trials”. And for those not shot, some 80,000 Red prisoners, there was a regime of brutality, starvation, cold and medical neglect in the camps that killed another 11,783 men and women. Upton puts the total number of workers killed in the fighting, subsequently executed or killed off in the camps at about 23,000. There was, he concludes, scarcely “a working class family in the land [that] did not have some direct experience of repression or injustice at the hands of the victorious Whites”.48


One of the founders of the new Communist Party, Otto Kuusinen, went on to write an invaluable analysis of the revolution and civil war, The Finnish Revolution: A Self-Criticism. It was first published as a pamphlet in English by Sylvia Pankhust’s Workers’ Socialist Federation in 1919 and was reprinted by the Communist Party in Labour Monthly early in 1940. It was Kuusinen who described the SDP as an “axe without an edge”. He characterised himself as having been a “centrist” during the revolution: “We did not believe in revolution; we did not trust it, nor did we call for it. This, when all is said, is characteristic of social democracy”. Then when the Svinhufvud government finally launched its offensive:

Social Democracy replied by revolution. But what was its watchword? The power of the workers? No, it was democracy, a democracy which should not be violated. Our position from a socialist standpoint was not clear and viewed historically was Utopian. Such a democracy could at best be created only on paper. Such a thing has never existed in a society formed of classes and can never develop there. In democracy a robber class has always stolen power from the people.

He goes on to chronicle the “mistakes, irregularities and omissions” that led to defeat in the civil war, a defeat that he quite correctly does not regard as inevitable. The SPD were just not organised to wage war and were defeated before the weaknesses in organisation, discipline, leadership and intelligence could be remedied. Once the German troops had arrived “it was impossible to avoid defeat”. And by the end, he comes round to a decisive rejection of bourgeois democracy and of parliamentarianism and instead embraces workers’ power, the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Kuusinen building a Communist Party involved adopting a number of “fundamental principles”:

The working class must energetically prepare for an armed revolution, and not hang back with the old system with its parliaments, trade unions and cooperative societies… By the revolution the working class must take all power into its hands, and set up an iron dictatorship. Therefore our efforts must lead to the suppression of the bourgeois state… Through the dictatorship of the workers must be created a Communist society, by means of the expropriation of all land and capitalist property, and by the workers taking production and distribution into their own hands.49

This was the way forward.

Looked at from a revolutionary socialist perspective, what is clear is that the experience of the Finnish Revolution demonstrates the fate of a working class revolutionary movement without a revolutionary party to lead it in the struggle. In Finland in 1917 and 1918 the working class were ready to seize power but the SDP leadership effectively sabotaged the movement, remaining committed to the parliamentary road and a reformed capitalism when the workers were ready to overthrow the landowners and capitalists once and for all. The result was defeat and disaster. This would without any doubt have been the fate of the Russian Revolution but for the Bolsheviks.

The tragedy of Stalinism

The failure of the Russian Revolution to spread led to the rise of Stalinism, to workers’ power being replaced by a state capitalist regime that undertook the forced industrialisation of the Soviet Union at the expense of the workers and peasants. A monstrous police regime had been imposed on the country. At the same time Communist Parties throughout the world were transformed from revolutionary organisations into tools of Soviet foreign policy. The history of Kuusinen’s pamphlet, The Finnish Revolution, provides a revealing miniature insight into this development. Kuusinen was installed at the head of a puppet government in exile at Terijoki, established by Stalin in an attempt to legitimise the Russian attack on Finland that had been launched towards the end of 1939. By this time, of the leading figures in the Finnish CP unfortunate enough to be living in the Socialist Fatherland, “only Kuusinen survived”; the rest had died in the Great Terror. Kullervo Manner, along with 15 others including Kuusinen’s brother-in-law, had been purged as early as 1935, disappearing into the gulag. Manner “perished in prison along with his wife Hanna Malm”. Kuusinen’s wife Ainu, herself a veteran Communist, was arrested in December 1937 and consigned to the gulag, serving nine years, eight of them in the terrible labour camps in Vorkuta. She was released after the Second World War, but was rearrested in 1949 for spying for the Americans and only finally released in 1955.50 By the time Labour Monthly reprinted The Finnish Revolution in 1940 some 20,000 Finns had already been “sent to labour camps, where many died”.51

What of those Communists living in Finland in 1939-40? There was hardly any support for the Russian attack especially once they began bombing Helsinki. As Kimmo Rentola argues, in the first days of the war, “workers’ blocks were heavily bombed, a fact denied by Soviet radio. This lie did not console those whose homes were burnt out. One Helsinki worker, a faithful party member then and afterwards, said that he accepted the bombing of the bourgeoisie, ‘but shooting workers is too much’”. Kuusinen’s government appealed to Finnish Communists conscripted into the army to defect to the Russians. Very few did, but nothing better demonstrates the perversity of the Stalin regime, its murderous paranoia, than the fact that those who did “were instantly arrested and some even shot as spies”. Those not shot spent years in the camps, not released until after Stalin’s death.52 A similar fate befell those German Communists serving in the German Army who crossed over to the Russian lines shortly before the German surprise attack on 22 June 1941 hoping to warn their Russian comrades of what was coming.53

The Russian attack actually precipitated the resignation of the general secretary of the Finnish Communist Party, Arvo Tuominen. He was in exile in Sweden at the time of the attack and wisely ignored a summons to travel to Moscow where he would have almost certainly been arrested and shot. His memoir, The Bells of the Kremlin, is a grim account of growing disillusion with Stalin’s Russia as he experienced it on many earlier visits. He describes a celebratory visit to the White Sea Canal that was spoiled by a conversation with a Finnish American slave labourer, one of the prisoners forced to dig it, who took his life in his hands to tell him of the “thousands of forced labourers worked to death”, of how they were given just enough food “to keep them alive”, and of how “the sanitary conditions were indescribable. Spotted fever and typhoid raged and scurvy was prevalent”. The cost of digging the canal in human lives was, according to Tuominen, anywhere “from sixty thousand to two hundred thousand”. He visited Russian prison camps which were intended to impress him, but decribes them as “much worse” than the camps he had been held in when he had been a prisoner of the Whites in Finland. In one camp the prisoners were “all on the verge of death from starvation”.

He wrote of how all the Finnish copies of Capital were recalled after the arrest of “the translator named Kangas” and of Edvard Gylling, the leading Finnish Communist, who had written the introduction. And far from being a classless society, what he saw in the Soviet Union was rampant inequality and privilege. Whereas under the Tsars there had been first, second and third class carriages on the railways, in Stalin’s “classless society they had reached seven…the seventh was the cattle car”. In the midst of all this suffering, misery, exploitation and massacre, Stalin was praised as a god, deified. Tuominen cannot disguise his incredulity. Stalin “knew everything…was as great a thinker and theoretician as he was a practical man in all fields. Stalin even taught dancers to dance—a leading ballerina told an interviewer in all seriousness that she could thank Stalin for her skill—ski jumpers to jump, skaters to skate, filers to file, authors to write, and so on”. Now his own execution beckoned and Tuominen, at last, broke with Stalinism.54

But why did the British CP reprint The Finnish Revolution? It was an act of consummate cynicism. In effect the pamphlet was a repudiation of the whole strategy of the Popular Front that the British CP along with the rest of the international Communist movement had pursued since 1935, a strategy that had considerable similarities with that of the Finnish SDP during the Finnish Revolution and that had, for example, produced a similar outcome in Spain. This strategy had been abandoned overnight when the Soviet Union allied itself with Nazi Germany on 23 August 1939. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had, moreover, placed Finland within the Russian sphere of influence, preparing the way for the Russian attack later that year. And, of course, the original meaning of the pamphlet was emptied out. When Kuusinen had written of “an iron dictatorship” in 1919, he had meant workers’ power and a workers’ state that ruthlessly put down its capitalist and landowning enemies who would have drowned the revolution in blood if not defeated. This was a lesson he had learned through bitter experience. By 1940, however, “an iron dictatorship” meant a murderous bureaucratic dictatorship that ruled over the working class by terror and had allied itself with Nazi Germany. Indeed, Kuusinen, who had transformed himself into one of Stalin’s most faithful courtiers by this time, was himself surprised at his own survival under this regime. He actually kept a knapsack packed with toiletries and a change of underwear ready for when the NKVD came to arrest him.55 When his wife Ainu was arrested her NKVD interrogators had repeatedly demanded that she denounce her husband as a British spy.56 The Otto Kuusinen of 1939-40 was, it is absolutely clear, a very different man from the Kuusinen of 1919. And by his 70th birthday in 1951, the great survivor was rewarded by his Soviet masters with his own “personality cult”.57

John Newsinger is a member of the SWP in Brighton. His latest book is Hope Lies in the Proles: Orwell and the Left (Pluto, 2018).


1 Upton, 1980, p4.

2 Alapuro, 1988, p31.

3 Alapuro, 1988, p126.

4 Upton, 1980, p7.

5 Kirby, 1975, p92.

6 Upton, 1980, p9.

7 Kujala, 2005, p91.

8 Alapuro, 1988, p121.

9 Soderhjelm, 1919, p10.

10 Kujala, 2005, p91.

11 Upton, 1980, p18.

12 Jay Smith, 1958, p14; Haapala, 2014, p45.

13 Soderhjelm, 1919, p19.

14 Tuominen, 1983, p7.

15 Kuusinen, 1940, part 1, pp116-117.

16 Tuominen, 1983, p8.

17 Siltala, 2014, p63.

18 Tokoi, 1957, p141.

19 Upton, 1980, p69.

20 Upton, 1980, p126.

21 Kuusinen, 1940, part 1, pp117-118.

22 Upton, 1980, p133.

23 Alapuro, 1988, p165.

24 Siltala, 2014, p65.

25 Jay Smith, 1958, pp26-27.

26 Upton, 1980, pp148, 150, 153, 156.

27 Hamalainen, 1979, p47.

28 Alapuro, 1988, p170.

29 Serge, 1972, p183.

30 Upton, 1980, p157.

31 Stalin, 1917.

32 Hodgson, 1967, pp46-48.

33 Upton, 1980, pp206-207.

34 Serge, 1972, p184

35 One of the consequences of Germany’s defeat in the First World War was that Prince Friedrich Karl never came to occupy his throne and Finland became a Republic.

36 Screen, 2014, p3.

37 Kirby, 1986, p163.

38 Even Tokoi could not understand how on earth the Svinhufvud cabinet had been allowed to escape—Tokoi, 1957, p155.

39 Alapuro, 1988, p174.

40 Arasolo, 1998, p155.

41 According to Upton there were certainly summary executions carried out by the Reds, although considerably fewer than those by the Whites, but the reports of “torture, mutilation, and atrocity, prisoners burnt alive or buried alive, are all fictions of the White imagination”—Upton, 1980, p378.

42 For the part played by women in the Red Guard see Lintunen, 2014, pp212-218. The German commander, General Rüdiger von der Goltz, complained in his memoirs of the ferocity of these “women wearing trousers…fanatical defenders of the new canon of barbarity” (p216).

43 Loima, 2007, p263.

44 Upton, 1980, p469.

45 Upton, 1980, p471.

46 Serge, 1972, p187.

47 For an interesting discussion of Finnish Communists and British Communism at this time see Morgan and Saarela, 1999.

48 Upton, 1980, pp519, 522; Tikka, 2014, p110.

49 Kuusinen, 1940, part 2, pp175-176, 177, 179, 183.

50 Her account of the horrors of Vorkuta is in her memoir—Kuusinen, 1974, pp149-180. Here she writes of the how prisoners died “in their thousands”, starved and worked to death. On one occasion, she asked a guard how “the naked emaciated bodies”, collected every morning, were disposed of? They were dumped in the tundra to be eaten by the wolves. At another time she encountered 50 Finnish women prisoners with 18 children. They told her of how, together with their husbands, they had come to the Soviet Union to help build socialism. Their husbands had all been shot, the children subsequently died of diarrhoea and most of the women were to worked to death—Kuusinen, 1974, pp175-176.

51 Upton, 1973, p214. It is worth noting that among Stalin’s victims were many Finnish-Americans, socialists and trade union militants, who had been persuaded to emigrate to the socialist fatherland for a better life and to help build socialism. They found it a graveyard—Sevander, 1996.

52 Rentola, 1998, p601.

53 Bellamy, 2007, pp155-157.

54 Tuominen 1983, pp70-74, 155, 208, 304

55 Jussila, Hentilä and Nevakivi, 1999, p174.

56 Kuusinen, 1974, p134.

57 Morgan, 2017, pp85-86.


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