Victor Serge

A Page from Finnish History

Mannerheim and Kuusinen Destroyed
the Socialist Revolution
Once Before, in 1918


Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 92, 9 December 1939, p. 3.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

“This war is nothing except the continuation and the last act of our war for liberation,” declared General Baron Mannerheim, commander of Finland’s army, on December 2. The “war for liberation” of 1918 to which he refers was, however, nothing of the kind. Finland’s right to national independence was guaranteed by one of the first acts of the Soviet government of Lenin and Trotsky: the Decree on the Rights of the Russian Peoples, promulgated on November 2, 1917.

This decree established the equality and sovereignty of the different nations in the former Czarist territories and their right to determine their own destiny, even to the point of separating and forming independent states.

The issue in Finland in 1918 therefore, was not the question of independence but whether Finland would be a workers’ republic or a bourgeois state. That issue was decided by a civil war precipitated by this same Mannerheim, in which the White Guards were victorious thanks to two things:

  1. The aid of German imperialism, purchased by the Finnish bourgeoisie at the price of becoming a vassal of the Kaiser. The Kaiser’s generals inserted into the Brest-Litovsk treaty a provision forcing the evacuation of Soviet troops from Finland, and provided Mannerheim with German regiments against the Finnish Red Guards. When Germany lost the war, Finland became a British sphere of influence.
  2. The same Kuusinen whom Stalin has set up as a puppet government was in 1918 leader of the Finnish social democracy and led the Finnish workers to disaster. An opponent of the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he opposed the expropriation of the capitalists; he did not summon the workers to take up arms against the White Guards until it was too late. In Stalin’s service Kuusinen remains, as before, an opponent of proletarian revolution, cynically serving the Kremlin bureaucracy in its annexation of Finland.

The story of the civil war of 1918 is a damning indictment of both Mannerheim and Kuusinen – then and now. The story is told in a chapter of Victor Serge’s The Year I of the Russian Revolution, which we publish here for the first time in EnglishEditors


Finland Was Ready for Socialism

If Russia was, as Lenin often remarked, one of the most backward countries of Europe, Finland was one of the most advanced in the world. Her customs, her advanced political education, the victories of her socialist movement, even her industrial structure, seemed to ensure the easy victory of socialism.

A part of Sweden since the Twelfth Century, a country of small proprietors whom feudalism had never overcome, Finland passed to Russia in 1809, through the alliance between Napoleon and Alexander I. Constituted as a Grand Duchy, she enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, all the larger as the Finns were able to defend their autonomy against the attacks of her Grand Dukes, the Czars of Russia. Finland kept her Diet, her own money, her postal system, her schools, her own army, and her own internal administration. She grew up, like the other Scandinavian countries, as a part of Western Europe.

Nicholas II made brutal attempts at Russification of Finland; he only succeeded in estranging the entire Finnish people. Two years after the Revolution of 1905, which forced the Czar to grant her a constitution, Finland instituted universal suffrage. In the first election, in 1907, the social democrats obtained eighty seats out of two hundred in the Sejm (parliament). The 1916 elections gave them an absolute majority, one hundred three out of two hundred. This majority voted the eight-hour day and an intelligent program of public legislation. Then parliamentary socialism found itself at the point of death. Was it possible to continue peacefully marching toward socialism with ballot in hand?

The Finnish bourgeoisie allied itself with Kerensky against the Red social democratic Diet; the Provisional Government in Petrograd, following the line of the autocracy, declared the Diet dissolved. Russian soldiers guarded its closed doors. In the following elections, the social democrats gained fom 375,000 votes the year before, to 440,000 votes – but lost some of their seats – from 103 to 92. This result was obtained by cynical fraud on the part of the bourgeois parties.

But no more than the Finnish proletariat could resign itself to this electoral defeat, could the bourgeoisie content itself with so precarious a victory. An extra- parliamentary settlement was on the order of the day. The bourgeoisie had foreseen it for long, and prepared seriously for civil war. But the social democracy, twenty years in the school of the “powerful” German social democracy, and dominated by reformist illusions, hoped to avoid the conflict.

Three thousand young Finns of the wealthier classes were in the 27th Jaegers battalion of the German army, fighting against their hereditary enemy, Russia. Clandestine military schools existed in various places throughout the country. After the fall of the Czar, a volunteer rifle corps was formed in the North to maintain law and order. This was General Herrich’s Schutzcorps, the first White Guard unit formed in the open. Its headquarters were at Vasa on the Gulf of Bothnia; it received arms from Sweden and Germany.

General Strike of November 1918

The October Revolution provoked an echo in Finland; a great general strike, in mid-November, brought on by a serious famine, which affected only the poorer classes, and by the reactionary policies of the Finnish Senate, which seemed inclined to place the reactionary Svinhufvud, at the head of a dictatorial Directorate.

The workers quit work everywhere. The railways stopped. Workers’ Red Guards, supported by Soviet Russian troops in places, occupied all public buildings. Bloody encounters occurred between the Whites and the Reds. The deputies argued. The frightened bourgeoisie consented to the application of the eight- hour law and to the enactment of a new program of social legislation, as well as to the democratization of power, which passed from the Senate to the Diet.

And the victorious general strike of the workers ended in the constitution of a bourgeois cabinet, headed by the same reactionary Svinhufvud! It was the abortion of a revolution. Finnish revolutionists are of the opinion that the seizure of power was possible at that time; it would even have been easy; the support of the Bolsheviks would have been decisive. Otto Kuusinen, then one of the leaders of the Center wing of the Finnish social democracy, later wrote: "Not wishing to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to skip that great historical turning-point by clever parliamentary maneuvers, we decided to elude the revolution ... We did not believe in the revolution; we had no hope in the revolution, we did not want it at all.” (Kuusinen, The Finnish Revolution, an Essay in Self-Criticism, 1919). With leaders of such mind, the cause of the Finnish proletariat was certain to lose.

Bourgeoisie Prepares for Civil War

But the general strike revealed their own strength to the workers, and to the bourgeoisie their peril. The Finnish bourgeoisie understood that it was lost without reinforcements. Svinhufvud asked the Swedes to intervene. The Whites armed feverishly in the North, where they collected large stocks of food. The government cleverly extended the famine in working class centers by holding back reserve food supplies. The proclamation of Finnish independence changed nothing. The possibility of Swedish or German intervention alarmed the workers more and more.

To cap matters, the Diet voted, by 97–87, a motion containing unmistakable allusions to the necessity for a bourgeois dictatorship. The problem of power was posed once more, even more seriously than on the eve of the November general strike. This time the social democrats realized that all chances of a parliamentary solution were exhausted. It was necessary to fight.

The red flag was hoisted over the Workers’ House in Helsingfors during the night of January 27. The rest of the city was rapidly captured, and the Senate and the government took refuge at Vasa. In a few days, the workers mastered the larger cities of Abo, Vyborg and Tammerfors, and the whole southern section of the country, without meeting any serious resistance.

The social democratic leaders, Kuusinen, Tanner, Sirola, formed the Council of People’s Delegates, under the control of a supreme Workers’ Council of 35 delegates – ten from the social democratic party, ten from the Red Guard, five from the Helsingfors workers’ organizations. What were they to do? “To march day by day toward the socialist revolution”, declared the People’s Delegates. They instituted workers’ control of production, made easy by the high degree of concentration of the main industries, lumber, paper and textiles; they put a stop to the sabotage of the banks. Public life and industrial production soon returned to an almost normal state.

Kuusinen Throws Away the Revolution

Was the dictatorship of the proletariat possible? Was it necessary? The social democratic leaders did not think so, although five hundred thousand, of a total population of three million, were engaged in industry. The workers and agricultural laborers together numbered half a million men. The small and middle farmers, the rural majority, could be won over or neutralized by the revolution. Unfortunately, “Until they were defeated, the majority of the leaders were not at all clear as to the goals of the revolution” (Kuusinen). Without either establishing the dictatorship of the laboring masses or expropriating the wealthy classes, the social democrats tried to establish a parliamentary democracy in which the proletariat was the leading class.

The principal measures taken by the Council of People’s Delegates were: the institution of the eight-hour day, the payment of wages for time out during the revolutionary strike, the emancipation of servants and bondsmen from the farms (they were hired by the year by the farmers and subject to very severe laws), the abolition of the old method of allocating land, which was based on a system of corvée and tribute, the abolition of rents for small tenants, the institution of judicial reform, abolition of the death penalty, tax exemption for the poor, a special tax on incomes of more than twenty thousand marks, a tax on apartments of more than one room, liberation of the press from ancient regulations, workers’ control of the factories.

The Council drew up a constitution, to be adopted by referendum, which expressed the Ideal Democracy which motivated the social democrats. An assembly of people’s representatives, elected every three years by universal, direct secret suffrage (women voting, the age limit twenty years), according to proportional representation, was to be the supreme authority of the “People’s Republic of Finland.” Any amendments to the constitution were to be submitted to a referendum. A minority in the assembly which mustered one-third of the votes had the right to veto all but tax legislation. The import of prime commodities was exempted from all taxation. Officials and magistrates were to be elected every five years and subject to recall by one-fifth of the electors at any time. The government was to be checked by a “control commission for the administration and application of laws”, two members of which could veto any new legislation, etc., etc.

A Finnish revolutionist has remarked of this constitution: “In theory, it attained the widest development of bourgeois democracy, a development actually impossible under a capitalist system. This bourgeois democracy could only go forward to the dictatorship of the proletariat if the workers were victorious, or backward to a bourgeois dictatorship if they were defeated.” It was a beautiful and completely utopian project. “The weakness of the bourgeoisie,” Kuusinen said, “let us into democratic illusions, and we decided to march toward socialism by parliamentary debate and the democratization of the government.” Such was the terrible effect of reformism on the Finnish socialists. Such was their fatal misunderstanding of the laws of the class struggle.

(How, in return for these democratic illusions, one hundred thousand Finnish workers – altogether about one quarter of the working class – were struck down by the White Terror, will be told next week, in the concluding instalment of Victor Serge’s story.)

Last updated on: 28 June 2018