When the North Star Turned Red: The Uprising

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In 1917, the Social Democrats in Finland had won a parliamentary majority, but the capitalists refused to accept these election results. Instead, they pushed the country towards civil war.

Finnish workers formed the Red Guard. Graphic: Simon Zinnstein

Part I | Part II | Part III

The General Strike in November

As Finland slid into autumn, the temperatures dropped, hunger spread, and the class struggle sharpened. The leading committees of the workers’ organizations elected a Workers’ Revolutionary Central Council. On the evening of November 13, 1917, this council called for a general strike. Despite an almost total lack of preparation, over 80,000 of the country’s 110,000 workers joined the strike, an unmistakable sign of their determination to fight until the end. Power across the country passed into the hands of revolutionary committees. Yet the problem of arms remained. The Red Guard of Helsinki, for example, was able to borrow 3,000 rifles from Russian soldiers, but many Red Guard units had almost no weapons or ammunition.

The bourgeoisie had nothing to oppose the Red Guard’s street patrols – the embryonic paramilitary units of the Home Guard (i.e. the White, counter-revolutionary militia) were in the rural areas. So from one day to the next, almost all of Finland passed into workers’ hands. The bourgeoisie let the parliament and the senate make angry proclamations, but the workers’ committees controlled the streets – it was a situation of dual power. A resolution from the country’s second city, Tampere, addressed to the Revolutionary Council, summed this up: “We cannot have two governments.” Yet there were still two governments, and one would have to eliminate the other sooner or later. Kuusinen later argued that the general strike had represented a revolutionary situation when power was up for grabs.

The SDP summarized the demands of the strike in a manifesto called “We Demand” (me vaadimme). In addition to an emergency program against the hunger crisis and the dissolution of the Home Guard, which they consistently referred to as the Butcher’s Guard (lahtarikaarti), the social democrats demanded a recognition of the Law on Power. They told their base that the strike would continue until a workers’ government was in power. In other words, the SDP demanded nothing less than the capitulation of the bourgeoisie – while still imagining a violent confrontation could be avoided.

In the meantime, the balance of power in Russia had shifted. After the failed coup attempt by General Kornilov, the Bolsheviks went from strength to strength, winning majorities in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils of important cities. In the night of November 7-8, the Bolsheviks led the October Uprising. It is unclear how quickly the news reached Finland, but Russia’s shift to the left during September and October had not gone unnoticed.

On November 16, the Revolutionary Council decided to seize power – 14 votes in favor and 11 opposed. However, the subcommittee tasked with preparing the insurrection lost its nerve after a few hours – it felt that an uprising could not be successful against the will of the minority. So on November 17, the strike was called off. The goal of the strike had been the creation of a workers’ government, yet the SDP had no plan for implementing this. The bourgeois majority in the parliament would certainly not elect one, but the SDP did not want to circumvent the parliament. Thus, the result of such an overwhelming strike was: nothing. However, the Finnish bourgeoisie had seen the incredible power of the workers. In the coming weeks, it prepared for civil war at a fever pitch.

Portrait: Otto Wille Kuusinen

Kuusinen was a bourgeois intellectual who joined the SDP in 1906 and became a leading figure of its radical wing. This wing, however, also did not see the revolution of 1917 as any more than an unfortunate necessity. In the People’s Delegation, he served as the delegate for education and wrote the “Swiss” draft of the constitution.

Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing a treaty with the non-existant “Finnish Democratic Republic.” In the background: Andrei Zhdanov, Kliment Voroshilov, Joseph Stalin, and Otto Wille Kuusinen. Graphic: Simon Zinnstein.

In April of 1918, Kuusinen read Lenin’s State and Revolution, whereupon he published a radical self-critique of the SDP in the Finnish Revolution. Along with many former SDP leaders, Kuusinen founded the Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue, SKP) in Russian exile. Like many new communist parties, the SKP initially went through an ultra-left phase: in the first elections after the war, it called for an (unsuccessful) boycott. In the years that followed, when Kuusinen returned to Finland and lived underground, he recognized that the working class was still suffering from the terrible defeat and was not preparing an armed uprising. Therefore, he became a proponent of the tactic of the United Front at the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International. He wrote the organizational resolution passed at the third congress, and at the fourth, he was elected to the secretariat of the Comintern’s Executive Committee.

Kuusinen was active in the highest circles of the Comintern and the Soviet Union. In 1952, he even joined the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU. He escaped the Stalinist purges and also “de-Stalinization,” making him one of very few functionaries who were successful under both Stalin and Khrushchev. Trotsky wrote about Kuusinen’s role in the Comintern in the late 1920s: “he risked nothing. He swam with the stream like those who commanded him. The petty logician became a great intriguer.”

When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in the winter of 1939, Kuusinen served as head of government of the “Democratic Republic of Finland,” an entirely fictional entity conceived as a fig leaf for Stalin’s aggression. The Soviet Union claimed it was not invading Finland – rather, it was simply providing aid to Kuusinen’s “legitimate government.” As the war dragged on, this government remained confined to a small village on the Russian border, only to be dissolved shortly thereafter. For this reason, Kuusinen is still considered a traitor in Finland. In the last weeks of his life, he asked the Finnish government for permission to visit his home region, but this was denied. Otto Kuusinen died in 1964.

Finland’s Independence

The October Revolution changed the political situation abruptly, not just in Russia but also in Finland. Until then, the majority of the Finnish bourgeoisie had rejected demands for an immediate declaration of independence because they still needed the Russian state apparatus to maintain their order; Finland’s Social Democracy, in contrast, wanted independence in order to get rid of that apparatus. Suddenly, this constellation was turned on its head: On December 6, 1917, the bourgeois majority in parliament voted for a unilateral declaration of independence. The social democratic opposition had tabled its own motion for independence, which called for negotiations with the Soviet government. The Finnish senate, however, refused any contact with the Soviet authorities, even for the purpose of transmitting the declaration of independence, assuming that the Bolsheviks would soon be overthrown. However, Germany, France and England all refused to give diplomatic recognition to Finland until the question was resolved with Russia. Thus, the Finnish government approached the Soviets after all.

A delegation from the senate, including Svinhufvud, travelled to Petrograd. Their declaration of independence, submitted on December 30, was rejected on formal grounds, as it was addressed to the “Russian Government” instead of the “Council of People’s Commissars.” The next day, the delegation received an official reply to their corrected statement: “In full accord with the principles of the right to self-determination (…) the political independence of the Finnish republic shall be recognized.” On January 4, 1918, this decision was ratified by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets. A Finnish diplomat suggested that on such a historic occasion, Svinhufvud and Lenin should meet. Lenin asked: “What have I got to say to these bourgeois?” Trotsky also refused the invitation. The People’s Commissar for Justice, Isaac Steinberg, declared: “In my official capacity I can only arrest them.”  Eventually, Lenin did go out briefly and there was a brief exchange of words, after which Lenin asked “are you satisfied now?” and inadvertently addressed his counterpart as “comrade.” Trotsky laughed: “It doesn’t matter, if some time we fall into their hands later, they will certainly recompense you for it.”

The Bolsheviks were willing to recognize the independence of Finland under a bourgeois government – and not only because they had no military means to prevent it. This corresponded to Lenin’s program on the national question. The Bolsheviks stressed they would have preferred to negotiate with a Finnish workers’ government, but they did not make this a condition. After the Finnish parliament had voted, de facto unanimously, for independence, the Bolsheviks were ready to accommodate the wish of the entire nation.

Was this just a propaganda trick? Political theater? Pretending to grant independence and then imposing a “communist” regime on the country with the Red Army’s bayonets? Later, this became the standard practice of the Stalinist regime, for example in the Baltic states in 1939 or in Eastern Europe after 1945, and in 1939 it was even unsuccessfully attempted in Finland. But in 1918, the situation was fundamentally different: the Red Army was only beginning to emerge, and the Soviet leadership was adamant in their defense of the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination. This was also conceived to win support from proletarians in oppressed nations for the socialist world revolution. The unconditional recognition of this right by revolutionary Russia would show oppressed nations that they were not still “the Russians” who – now armed with red flags – wanted to conquer and Russify other countries as they had done in Tsarist times. Lenin proclaimed the willingness of revolutionary Russia to cede territories in order to achieve the unity of the international working class: “the important thing for us is not where the state border runs, but whether or not the people of all nations remain allied in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, regardless of nationality.” Only from a position of equality, without resentments about territorial conquests, could a voluntary, honest and mutually beneficial federation of free nations be established.

Even before his return to Russia in March 1917, Lenin had demanded his party comrades recognize Finland’s right to self-determination. As he said at a party conference: “We are for Finland receiving complete freedom because then there will be greater trust in Russian democracy, and the Finns will not separate.” At the same time, a Bolshevik conference resolution on the Finnish question stressed that a revolutionary party of the proletariat would not advocate the separation of any given nation at any given movement – instead, the question had to be decided “from the standpoint of the interests of the struggle of the proletariat for socialism.” The Bolshevik position towards Finland, as presented by the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, at an SDP conference in late November 1917, was dichotomous: on the one hand, Finland’s independence was recognized immediately, but on the other, pressure was exerted on the SDP leadership, even in public in the Finnish language, to finally seize power. Stalin, on behalf of the Soviet government, promised any aid the Finnish socialists considered necessary to complete the revolution, and called for “audacity, more audacity, and always audacity.” This saying, by Georges Danton in the French Revolution, was also employed by Rosa Luxemburg for the workers’ movement. Around this time, Trotsky expressed his bewilderment to a journalist that the Finnish socialists had still not taken power.

Portrait: Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim

Mannerheim was the son of an aristocratic Swedish-speaking family, originally of German descent. After a “rebellious” youth, he began his military training in the Tsarist army in 1887.

Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim with a friend. Graphic: Simon Zinnstein

The White government chose him as commander-in-chief because he was one of few Finns with experience commanding large armies under modern conditions. The troops were sometimes quite unhappy for him, since the Whites’ general staff worked exclusively in Swedish. The patriotically-minded peasant troops often complained about the behavior of their “Russian” and “Swedish” officers. Mannerheim personified the two enemies of Finnish nationalists: the Swedish aristocracy and the Russian state apparatus.

Mannerheim had a friendlier attitude to the Entente than the majority of the Whites’ leadership and was more distant towards the German Reich. He had served in an Entente army for years and expected a German defeat in the war. This is why he was against excessive dependence on the German kaiser. Due to increasing conflicts with the government (over relations with Russia, but also over the power of the army), he resigned one month after the end of the Finnish civil war. This secured his future role; after the defeat of Germany, he was one of few Finnish politicians not contaminated by that association. He temporarily became Finland’s regent, but was then defeated in the first presidential election.

In Finland today, Mannerheim is considered a national hero and, according to at least one television survey, “the greatest Finn of all time.” He served in the army of Finland’s “traditional enemy,” Russia, for exactly 30 years and was promoted to lieutenant general, so he spoke Russian without an accent. Yet the “greatest” Finn never got beyond a rudimentary knowledge of Finnish. On his 75th birthday in 1942, Adolf Hitler was in attendance. Mannerheim later claimed that he hadn’t invited the führer. He served as Finland’s president from 1944–46 and died in 1951.

The Rubicon is Crossed

On January 12, 1918, the Finnish parliament, on the initiative of the Svinhufvud government, decided to create new state security forces. This could only mean the recognition of the White Guard as a new national army – even though this did not take place formally until the outbreak of the civil war. The narrow bourgeois majority in parliament forced through this decision without any compromises with the social democrats. An SDP deputy called out, “Finland’s bourgeois government has created a class-war army which is directed against the Finnish working people!” Another warned of a “bloody civil war” that the bourgeoisie had now initiated. For both camps, the coming conflict loomed large – but even in this situation, the SDP leadership took no initiative. The next day, its leadership resolved “that we shall wait until the revolutionary moment comes, but not strive towards it, and certainly not desire it.”

The outbreak of the fighting, which has often been interpreted by historians as the product of misunderstandings, was caused by three events that took place largely independently of each other:

  1. In Viiipuri (now Vyborg in Russia), fighting broke out on January 19 when the Red Guard occupied a factory where weapons were being stored for the Whites. The White Guard mobilized units from the surrounding countryside to occupy the city, but they were driven out by Russian soldiers under orders to disarm all Finns (whether Red or White) in the city. Eventually the Red Guard and the Russian garrison, in an informal alliance, took power in the city. This was a local matter, but it spurned further action.
  2. In Vaasa and in the Pohjanmaa region, on Finland’s upper west coast, the White Guard under its new commander-in-chief Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim began disarming the Russian garrison. In a few days, the Whites had arrested hundreds of Russian soldiers and captured thousands of rifles. Shortly after, they captured the only industrial city in the region, Oulu, after a bloody battle with the Red Guard.
  3. In Helsinki, on January 27 at 11pm, a red lantern was hung in the tower of the workers’ hall. This was the signal for the uprising. Public buildings, including the seat of government, were occupied without resistance. The arrest of the government, which had been meeting in that very building until 10pm, failed, and the bourgeois senators went into hiding in the city.

A few days earlier, on Lenin’s orders, a train carrying 15,000 rifles had left Petrograd for Helsinki. To protect this train, it was necessary to mobilize the Red Guard along the entire southern coast. To this end, a general strike was called. The uprising thus became unavoidable for the reluctant social democrats. One could say that the Finnish Revolution began because of a decision by the Soviet leadership – but this episode has little to do with the idea of an insurrection planned in Petrograd.

The Finnish Rubicon was crossed almost simultaneously in three locations. Mannerheim made use of Caesar’s phrase: “The die is cast.”

Red Finland

After the Helsinki uprising, a People’s Delegation of Finland (Suomen kansanvaltuuskunta) with 14 members was proclaimed – essentially it was the SDP’s executive committee, minus two right-wing social democrats who rejected the seizure of power, and plus two representatives of the SAJ. The government found it regrettable, even after the uprising, that it had been forced to take such a step. The revolutionary government only wanted to remain in office until a constituent assembly could be convened, so that a workers’ government could be formed via the preferred parliamentary route. Yrjö Sirola, from the SDP’s left wing, described the goal as a “better democratic order in this country.”

The Red government’s economic program was aimed at creating a regulated capitalist system with a state sector. There were no calls for the working class to take control of the factories. After a week in office, the People’s Delegation decided that workers in factories that did not pay wages or were closed could appeal to a revolutionary tribunal. After a judge’s ruling, workers could then go to the People’s Delegation and ask for the expropriation of the factory. The arrest of counterrevolutionary capitalists and managers, as demanded by radicals from Tampere, was explicitly rejected.

In fact, the People’s Delegation made hardly any calls for independent initiatives by the workers; the bureaucratic functioning of the SDP, perfected over decades, was transferred to the new state apparatus. Only in state enterprises where the administrative staff went on strike, following a call by the old government, were councils created, with representatives of the workers alongside a government commissar. Workers’ self-management kept the postal service and the railway running throughout the civil war.

The banks, however, remained untouchable. All banks closed after the uprising. The People’s Delegation decreed that they had to reopen, but the bankers did not react at all. The social democrats were afraid to nationalize the banks, so only the Finnish state bank was reopened. Throughout the civil war, unlike in the Russian Revolution, there were no scenes of bankers being arrested or bank vaults being broken open with dynamite. The revolutionary government was too inclined to financial orthodoxy, even maintaining the same personnel at the state bank.

The government saw itself as nothing other than the democratic government of the Republic of Finland – the term “Socialist Workers’ Republic of Finland” (Suomen sosialistinen työväentasavalta) only appeared in a treaty signed on March 1 with the Soviet government, and this only at Lenin’s insistence. The draft constitution, written mostly by Kuusinen and adopted by the People’s Delegation, provided for a parliamentary system without any kind of workers’ councils – much of the text was borrowed from the Swiss constitution!

Bourgeois historians have long claimed that Red Finland was marked by Red Terror. But in contrast to the Russian Revolution, where the leadership ordered and politically defended Red Terror (for example, taking relatives of prominent counterrevolutionaries hostage), the Red Terror in Finland was an invention of the Whites’ propaganda. Officially, the Reds were responsible for 1,500 deaths, but the vast majority of these were peasants or small shopkeepers because in rural areas, the collapse of state authority meant that old grudges could be settled by murder. In the large cities, hardly any such murders took place.

There were a few cases where Red Guards shot their prisoners. Shortly before their defeat, Red Guard units in retreat killed up to 100 White prisoners,but such executions were mostly the result of local strife or overzealous units. There is not a single piece of evidence showing that official government bodies, the SDP, or the Red Guard ever ordered or even approved the execution of prisoners. Quite the opposite: the Red government – which did not even have a secret service! – was certain that its “moral superiority” would sooner or later lead to victory over the bourgeoisie! Sophie Mannerheim, sister of the Whites’ commander-in-chief, could thus live in Helsinki unimpaired for the duration of the war.

The Red government certainly did have moral superiority on its side: in late February of 1918, Mannerheim decreed that alleged Red agents behind the lines were to be shot immediately. On the other side, there were cases where agents on Red territory passed on information to the Whites or sabotaged telegraph lines, and they were found guilty by revolutionary tribunals – and only sentenced to a fine! In general, most revolutionary movements learn from their counterrevolutionary opponents that they need to be hard. The Finnish revolution never developed this hardness. As Anthony Upton wrote,

In the heat of the civil war, these men who were principled atheists, came near to the Christian ideal of loving their enemies (…) It was a sentiment that their Christian opponents certainly did not reciprocate.

For example, a Christian women’s organization appealed to Mannerheim that Red prisoners should be allowed to see a priest – before they were shot.

In one week, Nathaniel Flakin will conclude this series with an article about the end of the civil war and the lessons to be drawn from it.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and will be published in English by Pluto Press in October 2019. He is on the autism spectrum.