Underneath the surface of too much radical left thinking is the assumption that the February/March revolution was something of a sham and the real proper revolution only happened in October/November when the Bolsheviks took over. Apparently you can't have a genuine revolution unless it is a proletarian one led people who have studied their Marx.
This is of course a grotesque distortion of history. The February revolution wasn't some kind of bourgeois trick. It came more genuinely from below than anything that happened in October. It began when a bunch of women got so angry about what they were being put through that their conversations in a bread queue turned into a riot. It consolidated when those same women were able to persuade the soldiers sent to shoot them down that they were in effect shooting their own mothers. The outcome of all those people refusing to do what they were told was the spontaneous establishment of representative groups of workers and soldiers who appointed their own leadership. Ironically, or rather revealingly, those women in the bread queues didn't get representation other than via their workplace. Nevertheless for a few brief months those soviets were an example of representative democracy at its best.
Almost as soon as these highly representative soviets were created political parties tried to get rid of them. Those who had opposed the Tsarist autocracy because of its inefficiency and suppression of freedom and of argumentative talent did so by trying to create a Provisional Government. One of the prime causes of the second revolution is the idiocies that arose from that group of people trying to govern a nation that didn't really accept their legitimacy. People in the towns and cities knew and trusted their soviet representatives - they had no reason to trust an unelected collection of bizarre figureheads. It was therefore no surprise that when the Provisional Government tried to continue to send millions more of the citizens of the Russian empire to their death in a pointless war they quickly lost the last vestiges of their credibility and got overthrown.
As far as most Marxists are concerned the entire period between the two revolutions was just a period of waiting until enough of the working class understood where their best interests lay and accepted the wise leadership of the Bolsheviks. Then when the 'glorious' Soviet Union was established anyone on the left who dared to criticise it was dismissed as a splitter, a dangerous liberal, a petty bourgeois element, lacking in class consciousness or just plain disloyal to the workers' cause.
Nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment it came to power the Bolshevik party pursued a vision of state socialism that was seriously at odds with the original aspirations of the first revolution and the real interests of ordinary people. Freedom was not a major part of the Bolshevik agenda. Control and guidance by a wise class conscious elite was. The result was that leaders who came to power with some excellent intentions succeeded in putting an end to the war and creating some very useful things like universal state education and health care. They also succeeded in creating a monolithic state dictatorship in which millions got sent to their deaths in the gulags.
So though the Russian revolution began with all the spontaneous energy of uncontrolled soviet democracy the Bolsheviks institutionalised their own power as a 'Soviet' state and abolished the reality of popular soviets. As Orwell saw all too clearly the only way to understand state communist politics is not to look at what the leaders claim to be doing but to study their actions instead. Work on controlling and abolishing local workers councils began immediately after the second Russian revolution. Work on institutionalising the soviets and the trade unions was almost as quick. Before long it was the party elite who ruled not the workers.
If you listen to most Trotskyists they will tell you that the revolution only descended into a bureaucratic state monolith because the revolution took place during difficult circumstances and there weren't enough class conscious proletarians around. Yet revolutions always take place in difficult circumstances so if that scuppers your hopes then proletarian revolution doesn't make for a very good solution. Even if the authoritarian leader's name is Trotsky instead of Stalin. In Russia an awful lot of proletarians saw very quickly how control was being forced on to them by the party of the bureaucrats and tried hard to fight against it in places like Kronstadt and in waves of strikes and protests. They were put down every bit as violently as the worst Tsarist counter revolutionaries.
Even more damaging was the establishment of the Third International. The leaders of the Russian Communist party decided to export their brand of socialism and get an army of radicals across the world to work on their behalf. That organisation is still the source of much of the thinking on the more traditional left. It is what drives the conviction that economic problems are fundamental and all others are somehow secondary. It is what drives the illusion that we can somehow trust authoritarian leaders in other countries so long as they claim to be socialist. It is also what drives the conviction that workers problems are real whereas women's domestic experience, the environment, issues of sexuality and questions of liberty or community are all very well and nice but not really quite as serious or important.
Before the Russian revolution the left had authoritarian socialist traditions but it also had very fine and strong libertarian traditions. People like William Morris were the lifeblood of the British left but written off by many Marxists for bothering too much with silly little issues like freedom of artistic expression and the importance of living in harmony with nature. People like Robert Owen were dismissed with an easy sneer for being idealistic. As if trying to implement ideals in practice on a small scale was somehow less worthy than seeking to overthrow a state and institute a Marxist dictatorship.
We now need to rid ourselves completely of the sterile Marxist thinking that still dominates so much of the left. We need an alt left. One that believes in liberty every bit as much as it does in equality. One that values genuine democracy. One that thinks every aspect of life is worthy of improvement and see the environment, gender, sexuality, artist expression, and the home as central issues for radicals.
When they asked Chou En Lai what he thought of the French revolution 150 years after the event he is said to have replied that it was too early to tell. After 100 years of the experience of state socialist thinking it would be wonderful if we could all decide that it is in fact far too late to form a judgement. The second Russian Revolution failed. Not because of difficult circumstances preventing the perfect application of the one true ideology. It failed because its leaders tried to do the wrong things. They thought they had the perfect answers because of the revealed scientific truth of Marxism. Instead they created an astonishingly authoritarian government.
The left will never fully recover from the damage of that until it gets over the intellectual legacy. It is time for socialism to go back to its roots and discover the importance of being every bit as enthusiastic about liberty and community as it is about equality. Authoritarian socialism had its day and failed. It is time for a libertarian left - an alt left - to step up to the task of building a popular movement that genuinely helps ordinary people. Instead of party apparatchiks.