Part Six: The Year of Revolution
The February Revolution
The year 1917 was ushered in by a strike wave in Petrograd, after a short lull in November–December 1916. In January alone, 270,000 were on strike, 177,000 in Petrograd, according to the figures of the Factory Inspectorate. The war created an ever more unbearable situation for the masses. Upon the nightmare of war superimposed the horrors of a deep economic crisis. By December 1916, 39 Petrograd factories were at a standstill due to a lack of fuel and 11 more because of power cuts. The railways were on the point of collapse. There was no meat, and a shortage of flour. Hunger stalked the land and bread queues became a normal condition of life. To all this must be added the constant news of military defeats and the whiff of scandal emanating from the court, the Rasputin clique, and the Black Hundred monarchist-landlord government. A regime dominated by aristocratic crooks, speculators, and assorted riff-raff openly paraded its rottenness before an increasingly disaffected people. The bourgeois liberals of the ‘Progressive Bloc’ pleaded with Tsar Nicholas for reform, trying to frighten him with revolution.
Beneath the surface, the mood of the masses had been slowly changing. Trotsky described this process as the “molecular process of revolution”. It is a process which proceeds so gradually that it is frequently imperceptible, even to revolutionaries, who sometimes draw the wrong conclusions from the appearance of apathy and the absence of surface manifestations of the accumulated frustration, rage, and bitterness. It is very similar to the gradual building up of pressure beneath the earth’s surface prior to an earthquake. This process is also invisible to the superficial observer who looks no further than the surface, without taking into account the seething processes that are unfolding in the bowels of the earth. When the eruption takes place, it produces general astonishment. All kinds of ‘learned’ people proffer explanations, which usually go no further than the immediate cause, which really explains nothing at all. Thus, the February Revolution is said to be caused by the scarcity of bread. This explanation overlooks the fact that, in the years following the October Revolution, the shortage of bread was far worse than before, as a consequence of the civil war provoked by the counter-revolution and the invasion of Russia by twenty-one foreign armies. Why did this not produce a new revolution? This question is never asked, and cannot be answered if we persist in confusing the immediate incident that sparked off the movement with its deeper underlying causes; that is, to confuse accident with necessity, like the old school textbooks that asserted that the First World War was caused by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and not by the accumulation of contradictions between the main imperialist powers before 1914.
The strike of 9 January 1917 was the biggest strike Petrograd had seen for the whole of the war. The strike was general in the Vyborg and Nevsky districts. It hit the war industries especially hard. About 145,000 workers were involved, in a kind of ‘dry run’ for revolution. The strike was accompanied with mass meetings and demonstrations. Petrograd resembled an armed camp, occupied by troops and police, but police measures were no longer sufficient to hold back the revolution. The bourgeois liberals, from their point of view, tried to stave off revolution by pleading with the Tsar for reforms. Rodzianko begged the Tsar to prolong the life of the Duma and organise a government reshuffle. The Menshevik-dominated Labour Group of the War Industry Committees called on the Petrograd workers on 14 February – the opening day of the Duma – to go to the Tauride Palace to show their ‘solidarity’ with the Duma and back the liberal opposition. The Bolshevik Bureau denounced this policy of class collaboration and called for a one-day strike on the anniversary of the trial of the Bolshevik deputies. 90,000 workers in 58 factories responded to the strike call. The Putilov workers demonstrated with the slogans: ‘Down with the War!’ ‘Down with the government!’ ‘Long live the Republic!’ No one bothered to go to the Tauride Palace. Rodzianko confessed that the Duma was reduced “to the role almost of a passive onlooker” as the demonstrators filed past almost under their noses along the Nevsky Prospekt.
These successive ‘dry runs’ – ‘progressive approximation’ would be an even more accurate expression – showed that the mood of the masses had reached boiling point. Delegates from Putilov visited all the other factories in the Narva and Vyborg districts. This sparked off a general movement. There were bread riots in which, significantly, a large number of women participated.
The strike at the giant Putilov factory, initially started on 18 February by a few hundred workers in one of the shops, over a claim for higher wages and the rehiring of some sacked fellow-workers, took the organised workers and revolutionaries by surprise. 30,000 workers of this giant firm set up a strike committee, came out onto the streets, and appealed to the other workers for support. On 22 February, the Putilov management responded with a lockout. This turned out to be a big mistake, as thousands of angry workers were massing on the streets, at a time when many working-class women were queuing in the freezing streets for a meagre ration of bread. The combination proved more explosive than the shells produced by the Putilov plant. By coincidence, the next day, 23 February, was International Women’s Day. This gave added impetus to the mass movement. The lightning speed with which the women and young people, formerly backward and unorganised layers, moved again caught the activists by surprise. As the Soviet historian E.N. Burdzhalov put it, working class youths “marched in the front rank of the demonstrators, were present at meetings, took part in clashes with the police, [and]… acted as scouts of the revolution, being the first to tell [adult] workers when troops and police were gathering, etc.” (Quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, p. 59.)
On 24 February, 200,000 workers – more than half of the Petrograd working class – were on strike. There were massive factory meetings and demonstrations, as the workers cast off their old fear and stood up to face their tormentors. The revolution had begun. Once it had started, the movement developed a momentum all of its own, carrying all before it. Massive demonstrations accompanied the strikes that spread like wildfire from the Vyborg district to the other industrial areas. Crowds of people swept past the police and troops to reach the city centre, even crossing the frozen river Neva, shouting ‘Bread!’ ‘Peace!’ and ‘Down with the Autocracy!’
On Thursday, 23 February, meetings were held to protest against the war, the high cost of living and the bad conditions of women workers. This in turn developed into a new strike wave. The women played a key role. They marched on the factories, calling the workers out. Mass street demonstrations ensued. Flags and placards appeared with revolutionary slogans: ‘Down with the war!’ ‘Down with hunger!’ ‘Long live the revolution!’ Street orators and agitators appeared as if from nowhere. Many were Bolsheviks, but others were ordinary workers, both men and women, who, after years of enforced silence had suddenly discovered that they had a tongue in their head and a mind that thinks.
That morning, a 25-year old sailor, Fyodor Fyodorovich Ilyin (Raskolnikov) looked out of the window and thought “Today is Woman’s Day. Will something happen in the streets today?” Something did happen. 128,000 workers were on strike. The whole city was seething with life.
As things turned out, ‘Women’s Day’ was fated to be the first day of the revolution. Working women, driven to despair by their hard conditions, a prey to the torments of hunger, were the first to come out on to the streets demanding ‘bread, freedom and peace’.
On that day, when we were shut up in our quarters, we were able to look out from the window upon a most unusual scene. The trams were not running, which meant the streets were uncharacteristically empty and quiet. But at the corner of Bolshoi Prospekt and Gavanskaya Street groups of working women kept assembling. Mounted policemen tried to disperse them, roughly pushing them apart with the muzzles of their horses and hitting them with the flats of their drawn swords. When the tsarist oprichniki rode on to the pavement the crowd would, without losing its composure, break up for the moment, heaping curses and threats upon them; but as soon as the mounted policemen had returned to the roadway, the crowd would close up again into a solid mass. In some of the groups we could see men, but the overwhelming majority consisted of working women and workers’ wives. (F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, p. 1.)
On 25 February, some 30 to 35 workers’ leaders met in the office of the Petrograd Union of Workers’ Cooperatives to set up a soviet. Although half were arrested the same evening, two days later, when the tide had already turned, a number of them proclaimed themselves the Provisional Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The Menshevik Duma deputy N.S. Chkheidze was elected chairman, although he obviously represented no factory. But then, the majority of the 150 or so present at the inaugural meeting of the Soviet had equally dubious credentials. It defined its aims as “to organise the people’s forces and to struggle to consolidate political liberty and popular government.” On the evening of the same day, Nicholas issued a peremptory order to Khabalov instructing him to “end the disorders in the capital by tomorrow”. The following afternoon the troops opened fire. A police report stated that “only when loaded cartridges were fired into the heart of the crowd was it possible to disperse the mob, who however for the most part hid in the courtyards of nearby houses and then re-emerged into the streets when the firing had ceased”. When the masses lose their fear of death, then the game is up. Yet even now, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd did not grasp the real nature of the situation. V. Kayurov, a member of the Bolshevik committee in the Vyborg district, concluded that “one thing seems evident: the insurrection is dissolving”. (J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, p. 60.) In reality, it was only just beginning.
Within a few days, from 25 to 27 February, Petrograd was in the grip of a general strike. A general strike poses the question of power point blank, but in and of itself cannot solve it. The question arises from the situation itself: Who rules? Who is the master of the house? Inevitably, the final issue is decided by force. Recovering from its initial paralysis, the regime began to react. The Tsar personally issued the order: “I order you to put an end to the disorder in the capital tomorrow without fail.” The soldiers and police were ordered directly by Nicholas the Bloody to fire on demonstrators. On 26 February, the shooting began. Most of the soldiers fired in the air, but the police, always more backward and reactionary than the soldiers, fired into the crowds. Many were killed or injured. This was a decisive turning point in the consciousness of the soldiers. That very day, the Pavlovsk regiment, ordered to fire on workers, instead opened fire on the police. On paper, the regime had ample forces at its disposal. But in the moment of truth, these forces just melted away. The desperate calls for reinforcements went unanswered. Trotsky reproduces a questionnaire sent by General Ivanov to General Khabalov:
Ivanov’s question: How many troops are in order and how many are misbehaving?
Khabalov’s reply: I have at my disposal in the Admiralty building four companies of the Guard, five squadrons of cavalry and Cossacks, and two batteries; the rest of the troops have gone over to the revolutionists, or by agreement with them are remaining neutral. Soldiers are wandering through the towns singly or in bands disarming officers.
Q: Which railroad stations are guarded?
R: All the stations are in the hands of the revolutionists and strictly guarded by them.
Q: In what parts of the city is order preserved?
R: The whole city is in the hands of the revolutionists. The telephone is not working, there is no communication between different parts of the city.
Q: What authorities are governing the different parts of the city?
R: I cannot answer this question.
Q: Are all the ministries functioning properly?
R: The ministers have been arrested by the revolutionists.
Q: What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?
R: None whatever.
Q: What technical and supply institutions of the War Department are now in your control?
R: I have none.
Q: What quantity of provisions is at your disposal?
R: There are no provisions at my disposal. In the city on 5 February there were 5,600,000 pounds of flour in store.
Q: Have many weapons, artillery and military stores fallen into the hands of the mutineers?
R: All the artillery establishments are in the hands of the revolutionists.
Q: What military forces and staffs are in your control?
R: The chief of the Staff of the District is in my personal control. With the other district administrations I have no connections. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 105-6.)
There was widespread fraternisation between troops and strikers. Workers went to the barracks to appeal to their brothers in uniform. At Bolshevik headquarters there were continuous and often heated discussions on tactics, in a situation which was changing, not by the day but by the hour. Shlyapnikov argued against the setting up of armed detachments, placing all emphasis on winning over the troops. Chugurin and others argued that both tasks were necessary, and so on. In the event, the situation was moving far faster than the debates of the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd. The workers were, in effect, taking over the city, making up for the lack of arms and military training with sheer heroism and weight of numbers.
After 27 February most of the capital was in the hands of the workers and soldiers, including bridges, arsenals, railway stations, the telegraph, and the post office. In the moment of truth, the mighty forces which the regime possessed on paper evaporated into thin air. By the night of the 28th, Khabalov was left entirely without troops – a general without an army. The ministers of the Tsar’s last government were led away to the Peter and Paul Fortress, prisoners of the revolution! Basing themselves on the experience of 1905, the workers set up Soviets to take over the running of society. Power was in the hands of the working class and soldiers.
One thing is absolutely clear. The overthrow of tsarism was accomplished by the working class, which drew behind it the peasantry in the shape of the army. In fact, the revolution was accomplished in a single city – Petrograd – which accounted for just one-seventy-fifth of the population of Russia. Here, in a most striking way, we see the decisive weight of the proletariat over the peasantry, of the town over the countryside. The February Revolution was relatively peaceful because no serious force was prepared to defend the old regime. Once the proletariat began to move, there was nothing to stop it. In relation to the February Revolution Trotsky wrote:
It would be no exaggeration to say that Petrograd achieved the February Revolution. The rest of the country adhered to it. There was no struggle anywhere except in Petrograd. There were not to be found anywhere in the country any groups of the population, any parties, institutions, or military units which were ready to fight for the old regime. This shows how ill-founded was the belated talk of the reactionaries to the effect that if there had been cavalry of the Guard in the Petersburg garrison, or if Ivanov had brought a reliable brigade from the front, the fate of the monarchy would have been different. Neither at the front nor at the rear was there a brigade or regiment to be found which was prepared to do battle for Nicholas II. (Ibid., p. 158.)
The workers now had power in their hands, but, as Lenin later explained, were not sufficiently organised and conscious to carry the revolution through to the end. This was the central paradox of the February Revolution. The class which carried through the revolution was none other than the workers, pulling behind them the peasantry dressed in a grey soldiers’ greatcoat. Then how was this a bourgeois revolution? True, in its immediate programme and demands, the objective content of the February Revolution was bourgeois-democratic. But what role did the bourgeoisie play in it? A counter-revolutionary role, which was only thwarted because the liberal politicians, like the autocracy itself, lacked the material means to put it into effect. Grasping the impossibility of drowning the revolution in blood, they hastily improvised a ‘Provisional Government’ in order to attempt to gain control of the movement and derail it. The Provisional Government emerged out of the provisional committee of the Duma which gave itself a title that says it all: ‘Committee for the Re-establishment of Order and Relations with Public Institutions and Personages’. The committee was headed by Mikhail Rodzianko, the former Speaker of the Duma, who admitted that he viewed the Tsar’s abdication with “unspeakable sadness”. Another prominent member of the Progressive Bloc was Shulgin, who wished machine guns had been made available to him to deal with the mob. Shulgin accidentally let slip the real reasons for the formation of the Provisional Government, when he remarked: “if we do not take power, others will take it for us, those rotters who have already elected all sorts of scoundrels in the factories.” (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, pp. 119-20.)
The “scoundrels in the factories” were the members of the workers’ councils (‘soviets’), those broadly based committees of struggle, democratically elected in the workplaces, which immediately made their appearance. The workers took up where they had left off in 1906. In the course of the revolution they rediscovered all the old traditions and set up elected councils in every factory. In fact, power was already in their hands in February. The problem was the lack of a party and a leadership that stood for revolution. The reformist leaders who found themselves thrust into the foreground in the beginning of the revolution, and who made up the bulk of the Soviet Executive Committee, had no perspective of taking power, but fell over themselves in their haste to hand over power to the bourgeoisie, although the latter had played no role in the revolution and were terrified by it.
The liberals had no real mass base of support in society. The only reason the Provisional Government could survive was that it was propped up by leaders of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The representatives of big business knew that they could only hold the line by leaning on the support of the Soviet leaders. This would, after all, be only a temporary arrangement. The masses would soon tire of this madness. The movement would die down, and then they could simply give the ‘socialists’ a kick in the teeth. But for the time being, they were a necessary evil to be put up with, for fear of worse. They therefore swallowed their indignation and made the necessary overtures. The reformist leaders held a hastily convened meeting at the Tauride Palace with the members of the Labour Group of the Central War Industry Committees, the Menshevik Duma deputies, and assorted journalists and intellectuals of the Menshevik camp. The Mensheviks immediately came out with a class collaborationist stance. That was only to be expected, since it was the logical outcome of their whole previous evolution. Their OC published a declaration on 1 March calling for a Provisional Government “which will provide the conditions for the organisation of the new free Russia”. The workers had shed their blood to conquer power, while the bourgeoisie watched, terrified, from the sidelines. Yet the Mensheviks – the elected representatives of the “scoundrels in the factories” – wished to hand over power to the bourgeoisie!
The workers and soldiers distrusted the bourgeoisie but trusted their leaders, especially those with the most radical and ‘left’ image, like Kerensky. This middle-class careerist with a lawyer’s rhetoric and a flair for theatrical demagogy was perfectly cut out to embody the first shapeless, confused and naïve stages of the awakening of the masses. Kerensky was allowed by the Soviet to participate as a member of the Provisional Government. Here we have the central paradox of the February Revolution: that it brought to power those who played absolutely no role in its success and who feared it as the devil fears holy water – the Cadets and their Octobrist allies in the Duma. On 2 March, the Provisional Government was constituted. It was made up mainly of big landlords and industrialists. Prince Lvov was designated as chairman of the council of ministers. The Foreign Minister was the chief of the Cadet Party, Milyukov. The Finance Minister was the wealthy sugar manufacturer and landowner Tereshchenko. Trade and Industry was in the hands of the textile manufacturer Konovalov. War and Navy went to the Octobrist Guchkov. Agriculture was given to the Cadet Shingarev. To this reactionary gang of rogues, the Soviet handed the government of Russia!
The petty-bourgeois leaders of the Soviets had no confidence in the ability of the masses to carry through the revolution. Profoundly convinced that the bourgeoisie was the only class qualified to rule, they were anxious to hand over the power conquered by the workers and soldiers to the ‘enlightened’ section of capital at the earliest opportunity. The Mensheviks and SRs strove to convince the masses that to rule without the capitalists was to “destroy the people’s revolution” (!). (Izvestiya 2/3/17) They constantly harped on the theme that the working class was too weak to carry through the revolution and must not ‘isolate’ itself. Potresov put the Menshevik position bluntly when he said that “at the moment of the bourgeois revolution, the (class) best prepared, socially and psychologically, to solve national problems, is (the) bourgeoisie”. On 7 March, the Petrograd Menshevik organ Rabochaya Gazeta wrote: “Members of the Provisional Government! The proletariat and the army await your orders to consolidate the revolution and make Russia a democracy.” (Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 121 and p. 120.)
Such a thought, however, was very far from the minds of the bourgeois leaders of the Provisional Government. Their first instinct, as we have seen, was to resort to repression, but that was now impossible. Therefore, they were compelled to manoeuvre and play for time. So they ‘gave’ to the masses only what the workers and soldiers had already conquered in struggle. The sole aim of the liberals was to halt the revolution by making cosmetic changes from the top which would preserve as much of the old regime as possible. That old regime, severely undermined, bruised and shaken, was still in existence in the shape of the economic power of the landlords, bankers, and capitalists, the huge bureaucracy, the officer caste, the Duma and – the monarchy. The liberal bourgeoisie was so terrified of the revolution that it clung like grim death to the monarchy as the firmest bulwark of property and order. In order to preserve the monarchy, the Provisional Government was manoeuvring to replace Nicholas II with his son under the regency of his brother Prince Mikhail, hoping to substitute one Romanov for another. In this grotesque comedy of errors, the workers, who had shed their blood to overthrow the Romanovs, handed power to their leaders, who, in turn, handed it to the bourgeois liberals, who, in turn, offered it back to the Romanovs!
All this was not lost on the workers and soldiers, especially the activists, whose attitude to the bourgeois politicians in the Provisional Government was characterised by a gnawing feeling of distrust. But they trusted their leaders, the Mensheviks and SRs, the ‘moderate socialists’ who made up the majority of the Soviet Executive Committee and who were constantly telling them that they must be patient, that the first task was to consolidate democracy, to prepare to convene the Constituent Assembly, and so on. The masses listened and considered. Perhaps we should wait and see. Our leaders know best. Yet the gnawing feeling of distrust was to grow more intense with every passing day.
The Bolsheviks in February
The Bolsheviks had lost a lot of ground since 1914, and had also lately been badly hit by repression. Table 6.1, taken from Istoriya, shows the strength of the Party in February.
(6.1) Approximate number of Members of the Bolshevik Party by region in February 1917
(Source, Istoriya KPSS)
When we bear in mind that we are talking about a huge country with a population in the region of 150 million, we see that, in the beginning of the revolution, the Party represented a very small number. But against this we must take other factors into account. The quality of the Bolshevik cadres was undoubtedly superior to those of the other tendencies. Mostly working-class in composition, they would have had better training, and a higher level of discipline than the Mensheviks and SRs. A high proportion of them would have been what we might call the ‘natural leaders’ in their workshops, the most conscious and militant elements who enjoyed the trust of their fellow workers. Each one would be in touch with a much larger number. Above all, they could base themselves on the Bolshevik tradition left over from 1912–14, especially in big industrial centres. Organisationally, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were in a far worse state. In principle, the Bolsheviks had the edge over other tendencies. Sukhanov, who after all was a Menshevik, refers to them as the main workers’ tendency in Petrograd in February. But against this must be weighed the quality of the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd. In February the leading cadres were Shlyapnikov, Zalutsky, and the young student, Molotov.
In the first volume of his informative and closely-observed history of the revolution, the left Menshevik Sukhanov, who also attended the meetings, says of the Petrograd Bolshevik leaders that “their flat-footedness or, more properly, their incapacity to think their way into the political problem and formulate it, had a depressing effect on us.”
Sukhanov gives the following appraisal of Shlyapnikov, who was one of the leading elements:
A party patriot, and, one might say, a fanatic, ready to appraise the entire revolution from the standpoint of the success of the Bolshevik Party, an experienced conspirator, an excellent technical organiser and a good practical member of the professional movement, but definitely not a politician, capable of grasping and generalising the essence of the given circumstances. If there was any political thought present here, then it was the pattern of the old-time party resolutions of a general character, but this responsible leader of the most influential workers’ organisation possessed neither independent thought, nor the ability or desire to work out the essence of the moment in all its concreteness. (N. Sukhanov, Zapiski o revolutsii, vol. 1, p. 50 and p. 94.)
The Menshevik Sukhanov no doubt underestimates the qualities of Shlyapnikov, which are presented in a one-sided manner. Nevertheless, there is at least a grain of truth in this pen-portrait which sums up many of the mental traits of a typical Bolshevik ‘committeeman’. As in 1905, the latter quickly lost their bearings when confronted with a new situation and lagged behind the movement until Lenin rearmed the party with the perspective of a new revolution. This fact has long been concealed by the writings of Soviet histories. For example, they claim that the Party issued a leaflet on 26 February. But more recent investigations have shown that the Petrograd Committee published its first leaflet on 27 February. But by this time Petrograd was already in the grip of a general strike and the spread of mutinies in the army and navy had sealed the fate of the regime. In other words, the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd was following the movement, not leading it.
How did the party react to the February events? According to the voluminous history of the CPSU produced under Khrushchev, on the morning of 25 February, the Bolshevik Bureau met and decided to take energetic steps to spread the movement throughout the country. But other accounts present a somewhat different picture. The February Revolution caught not only Lenin, but the whole party by surprise. At the beginning of the revolution, the party was still in a weak position. So weak that, as Marcel Liebman points out in his perceptive study, the Petrograd Committee was not even capable of issuing a leaflet on the occasion of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in January 1917. Yet in the space of a few months the Bolshevik Party’s membership had grown by more than ten times, transforming it into the decisive force in the working class. The growth of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 must represent the most spectacular transformation in the entire history of political parties. Yet in the initial phase of the revolution, the party showed itself to be woefully unprepared. The upsurge of the masses caught it off guard. “Lacking a vigorous and clear-sighted leadership,” writes Marcel Liebman, “the Bolsheviks of the capital had reacted to the first workers’ demonstrations with much reserve, and even with a suspiciousness that recalls their attitude in January 1905. They were somewhat isolated in the factories where they worked.”
At the beginning of the revolution, they did not give a good account of themselves. So far out of step were the Bolsheviks in Petrograd that at first they tried to restrain the movement on Women’s Day. V.N. Kayurov, a member of the key Vyborg District Committee, recalls how he intervened in a meeting of militant women workers on 22 February:
I explained the meaning of ‘Women’s Day’ and of the women’s movement in general, and when I had to talk about the present moment I endeavoured first and foremost to urge the women to refrain from any partial demonstrations and to act only on the instructions of the Party Committee.
But the women workers were in no mood to wait. Kayurov learned with “astonishment” and “indignation” that the party’s slogans had been ignored.
I was angered by the behaviour of the strikers. In the first place they had obviously ignored the decisions taken by the Party’s district committee, and then by me. The previous evening I had called on the working women to show restraint and discipline – and now, out of the blue, there was this strike. (See M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, pp. 117-118.)
In his History, Trotsky asserts that “for Bolshevism, the first months of the revolution had been a period of bewilderment and vacillation”. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 300.) There is plenty of evidence to back this assertion. The most experienced and politically mature leaders were in prison, in Siberia, or abroad. The Petrograd leadership, as we have seen, was ill-prepared for the tasks that loomed before it. The Russian Bureau was made up of Shlyapnikov, Molotov, and Zalutsky, who maintained contact with Lenin by letter. A member of the Vyborg District Committee, V.N. Kayurov, recalled that they “received absolutely no guidance from the leading organs of the Party. The Petrograd committee had been arrested, and Comrade Shlyapnikov representing the Central Committee, was unable to give [them] directions for future activity.” (Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 117.)
Having been caught off guard at first, once the scope of the workers’ action became clear, the Bolsheviks began to react, supporting the strike and working to extend it. More and more workers were becoming incorporated into the strike movement. By 25 February there were 300,000 on strike in Petrograd. The strike wave had turned imperceptibly into a general political strike: trams, small workshops, printers, shops, all were swept up into action begun by the women workers. Leaflets were issued with slogans: ‘Everyone in struggle! Onto the streets!’ ‘Down with the tsarist monarchy!’ ‘Down with the war!’
Gradually, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd recovered from their initial disorientation and got down to work. On the day the shooting started, three Bolshevik CC members were arrested. The Vyborg Local Committee assumed the function of leadership in Petrograd. From the morning of 27 February onwards, all the forces of the Petrograd organisation were sent out to the factories and barracks. Arsenals were raided. The Bolshevik V. Alexeyev organised the young workers of the Putilov plant into an assault group to attack the police, to seize their weapons. On the evening of the 27th, the Bolshevik leadership, consisting mainly of the Vyborg Committee, met to discuss what action was needed to transform the general strike into an armed insurrection. The order was given to fraternise with the troops and disarm the police, to raid the arms stores and arsenals, and to arm workers. The workers needed no urging!
Once they had recovered from their initial unpreparedness, the Petrograd Bolsheviks took a more offensive stance. They denounced pacts with the bourgeois liberals, flayed the defencists and called on the workers to take immediate action. The workers went to the barracks, fraternised with the troops, and were everywhere received with enthusiastic solidarity. The mood of the troops, some of whom were ex-Putilov workers, was revolutionary. The troops came over, one regiment after another. The same story was unfolding in Moscow. Together with the workers, the insurgent troops occupied the central arsenal in Petrograd. 40,000 rifles and 30,000 revolvers were instantly at the disposal of the workers. The going-over of the army was not an accident, but the result of years of harsh experience of the trenches, and beyond that the accumulated discontent of the long-suffering Russian peasant, brought to a head by the war. But the role of countless individual and nameless heroes cannot be underestimated.
The line usually put by bourgeois historians is that, whereas the October Revolution was a mere ‘coup’, the February Revolution was an elemental, spontaneous movement of the masses. The implied conclusion is that the first was a bad thing, the conspiracy of a small minority, leading inexorably to dictatorship, while the second… well, of course, as a revolution, one should not really approve, but then the tsarist regime was not entirely OK, and it did, after all, represent a democratic movement – a movement of the majority. Both these versions are false. The October Revolution was neither a coup nor a conspiracy, but the organised expression of the will of the overwhelming majority which had striven for nine months to find a solution to its problems through Soviet power. On the other hand, the description of the February Revolution as a merely ‘spontaneous’ affair is equally one-sided and superficial. One can say this only in the sense that no party had organised it. But this is insufficient. It conveys the impression of a kind of blind upsurge, like a stampede of cattle which occurs without rhyme or reason. The use of the word ‘spontaneous’ in this context explains nothing, and is merely a cover for the lack of explanation, or, worse still, a contempt for the ‘ignorant masses’ whose actions are attributed to mere herd instinct.
The Bolshevik Party as such could in no sense be said to have led the February Revolution. Yet somebody led it. Somebody took the initiative, called the strikes, organised the demonstrations. Every worker knows that even a strike of a couple of hours has a leadership. Someone always takes the initiative. Someone has to walk through the door of the manager’s office to present the workers’ demands. That person is chosen by the workers. And the choice is not ‘spontaneous’ (that is, accidental). The workers will inevitably choose the most conscious, the most fearless, the most committed man or woman on the shop floor to represent them. That person has a history which did not commence yesterday. He or she is known to the workers as someone who knows what they are talking about. These are the natural leaders of the working class. As a rule, though not always, most of them will be organised in the unions and left-wing political parties. In the case of Russia, they were mainly Bolsheviks.
Although they were still numerically small, the Bolsheviks by this time had some hundreds of members in the key factories: about 75–80 in the Old Lessner factory, around 30 in the ‘Russo-Baltic’ and ‘Izhorsky’ shipyards, and smaller groups in other factories. In the Putilov works, with its 26,000 employees, there were 150 Bolsheviks. These were still very small numbers, but with their revolutionary, uncompromising class policies, individual Bolsheviks undoubtedly played a role out of all proportion to their numerical strength in the February events. Without waiting for a lead from the party, the worker-Bolsheviks in the factories and barracks moved into action, providing decisive leadership to the strikers and demonstrators. Their past political activity provided them with political capital that placed them head and shoulders above the raw masses that surrounded them.
There can be no doubt that individual Bolshevik workers, as the most organised and militant elements in the factories, played a key role, giving a revolutionary class content to the slogans of the movement and an organised form without waiting for orders from the Bolshevik leadership. They had not read much theory, and in most cases simply remembered the basic party slogans on the war, the land, the republic, and the eight-hour day. But this limited stock of ideas, linked to a basic class instinct and revolutionary spirit, was enough to give them a colossal superiority and make them into giants in their workplaces and on the streets. The party agitator now came into his own.
These local leaders were sufficiently able to lead the workers to the overthrow of tsarism, but no more than that. In order to have gone further, they would have required a firm and clear guidance from the party leadership. But the Bolshevik leadership in Petersburg, still clinging to the inadequate and outmoded slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, had no perspective of the assumption of power by the working class. Even the most radical of them did not look further than the establishment of a bourgeois republic. The overthrow of tsarism therefore left them confused and disoriented. Thus, while the leading role in the February uprising was played in large measure by Bolshevik workers, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd lost the initiative as a result of their initial hesitations. As Lenin so often repeated, the workers and the rank and file proved far more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party.
As in the factories, so in the barracks, many of the ‘natural leaders’ of the soldiers were Bolsheviks, who now came into their own, like the ex-Putilov men who joined the army during the war. The decisive sections of the advance guard were under the influence of the Bolsheviks. The years had not passed in vain. Most of these would have been Bolsheviks, trained in the revolutionary school of 1905 and 1912–14. But the masses were a different matter altogether. The war had transformed the composition of the factories by drawing in a large number of formerly backward, unorganised, and inexperienced layers. In order for the heavy, multi-millioned masses to draw all the necessary conclusions, a further experience was necessary. It is natural for people to take the line of least resistance, even in a revolution. For this very reason the masses always cling obstinately to their traditional mass organisations. The thinking of the masses is very economical: why discard an old tool before trying to make it work? The only difference in Russia in 1917 was that the broad masses had neither a clearly recognised party nor a mass trade union, but only a vague idea of the ‘Social Democrats’. True, the most advanced workers were Bolsheviks and in the period immediately before the war had been in the majority – of the organised workers at least. But the masses newly awakened to political life could not immediately distinguish between the left and right wing. They were not immediately concerned with the niceties of programmatic details but were moved by a general desire for change. They were capable of carrying out a revolution but not of preventing power from slipping out of their hands. Their actions were far in advance of their consciousness. It required the experience of great events and the patient work of the Bolsheviks for the consciousness of the masses to be brought up to the level demanded by the real situation.
This also explains why the lines of demarcation separating Bolshevik and Menshevik workers were not so clear. Suddenly, the differences between them seemed less important. Did they not both defend a bourgeois-democratic republic? In any case, there was a strong urge for unity as a result of the revolution itself. The Menshevik workers, swept along by the revolutionary wave, fought side by side with the Bolsheviks. The idea of unity in action of all revolutionary groups was widespread at this time. At rank-and-file level, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and even SR workers collaborated in action without any difficulty. In many areas, not for the first time, Social Democratic groups fused spontaneously. This fact is highly significant. It shows just how tenacious the idea of unity is in the working class and also just how complex the task of building a revolutionary party is.
Even though in 1912–14, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in winning over four-fifths of the organised workers in Russia, even though during the war the Mensheviks had played hardly any role, yet in the heady days of February–April, the two factions were again merged into a single organisation in every province except Moscow and Petrograd. Indeed, in many areas, they remained united right up to the October Revolution. Such was the power of the banner of the old, traditional party, the RSDLP, despite all that had gone before. Even in Russia in 1917, Lenin’s struggle to separate out the genuine revolutionary tendency was not accomplished either easily or at one blow. In Russia, as in every other country, the mass forces of Bolshevism and the future Communist International did not drop from the sky, but were formed out of a struggle of contradictory trends within the existing traditional organisations of the working class (the Social Democracy) which, only after a long period of struggle with many vicissitudes, resulted in a split and the formation of a new party. This process, the stages of which we have attempted to outline in the present work, only really ended in October 1917, when the revolutionary wing finally won over a decisive majority in the Soviets and led the working class to the seizure of power.
The Mensheviks and the February Revolution
By its very nature, a revolution stirs society to the depths, arousing the millions of politically backward and inert masses to political life. Above all in a backward, predominantly peasant country like Russia, this meant the awakening of the peasantry and other layers of the petty bourgeoisie of town and countryside. The pressure of the petty bourgeois masses played a disproportionate role in the early stages. This was expressed in the system of elections in the Soviets. Initially, the workers were entitled to one representative for every 1,000 voters, one soldier elected for every company (rota in Russian) in Petrograd. This voting system gave an overwhelming preponderance to the soldiers, that is to say, the peasants, over the workers’ representatives in the Soviets. There were 2,000 soldiers deputies as against 800 workers. At the beginning of the revolution the Bolsheviks were submerged in this sea of politically untutored and often illiterate peasants. Motivated by the petty-bourgeois spirit, they tended to elect as their representatives ‘intellectuals’ and ‘the gentlemen who know how to speak’. These were overwhelmingly made up of the democratic middle class (many of them junior officers in the army) who gravitated massively to the moderate socialist and reformist parties – the Mensheviks and SRs.
The most prominent Menshevik leaders – Dan, Chkheidze, Tsereteli – were defencists, but there was a small group of Menshevik Internationalists – Martov, Martynov, and others – who opposed the war. These left reformist or ‘centrist’ elements (centrist, in the sense of standing between Marxism and reformism) had initially moved to the left, but, typically, did not want to break completely with the defencists, and therefore subsequently moved back to the right. The line of the Mensheviks in 1917, in contrast to 1905, was dictated by its right wing. The ‘lefts’ played no independent role. Nor could they. The only consistently revolutionary tendency was the Bolshevik Party, which attracted to itself, as Lenin later observed, all the best elements in the Russian labour movement. The best of the left reformists, one way or another, found their way into the ranks of the Bolshevik Party. The rest sunk without trace.
The Menshevik and SR leaders who dominated the Soviet in the beginning were, in practice, self-appointed. But they initially had a number of advantages over the Bolsheviks. They had the ‘big names’ from the Duma group, people known to the masses through the legal press during the war years. They also offered what appeared to be an ‘easy way out’ to the mass of politically untutored workers and peasants who now flooded onto the scene, intoxicated with democratic illusions. These petty-bourgeois leaders were inwardly terrified of the revolution and from the first were anxious to hand power over to the ‘natural’ leaders of society – the bourgeoisie.
There were other reasons why the Mensheviks and SRs came to the fore after February. The Petrograd proletariat, which was solidly Bolshevik in 1912–16, had been seriously diluted by the war. The raw layers who entered the factories did not have the same level of consciousness or tradition as the veterans of 1905 whom they replaced. Trotsky explains:
The hegemony of the lower middle-class intellectuals was at bottom the expression of the fact that the peasantry, suddenly called to take part in organised political life through the machinery of the army, had by sheer weight of numbers pushed aside and overwhelmed the proletariat for the time being. Even more, insofar as the middle-class leaders had been raised to a dizzy height by the powerful mass of the army, the working class itself, with the exception of its advanced sections, could not but become imbued with a certain political respect for them and try to maintain political contact with them for fear of finding themselves divorced from the peasantry. And this was a very serious matter, for the older generation still remembered the lesson of 1905, when the proletariat was crushed, just because the massive peasant reserves had not come up in time for the decisive battles. That is why in the first phase of the new Revolution also the proletarian masses showed themselves highly accessible to the political ideology of the SRs and the Mensheviks – especially as the Revolution had aroused the hitherto slumbering backward masses of workers, and thus made the hazy radicalism of the intellectuals a sort of preparatory school for them. (L. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, in The Essential Trotsky, pp. 27-28.)
The leading figures in the Petrograd Soviet – Chkheidze, Kerensky, the Soviet’s chairman, and Skobelev – were all Mensheviks and defencists. On the Soviet’s executive committee there were 12 others, but only two Bolsheviks: Shlyapnikov and Zalutsky. On a Bolshevik proposal, the EC was broadened to include three representatives from each party: Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and SRs. In this way, Molotov and K.I. Shutko were added for the Bolsheviks and P.I. Stuchka from the Latvian Social Democrats. The total number of Bolsheviks in the Soviet, on 9 March, was 40. The army was also represented on the Soviet. Soldier delegates were sent to the Tauride Palace, including men from the front. This meant, in effect, that for the first time the representatives of the peasantry sat alongside their proletarian brethren. This was indeed the practical realisation of the revolutionary unity of the proletariat and peasantry.
The Soviet launched its own publication, Izvestiya (The News), the first issue of which came out on 28 February under the editorship of Y.M. Steklov. Here at last was the parliament of the revolutionary people in arms! No power on earth could prevent it from taking over the land and factories and instituting a genuinely democratic republic of the toilers. It was sufficient that it should will it. There was only one obstacle – that the workers and peasants should be conscious of their power. But such a consciousness was as yet lacking. In this way was born the abortion of ‘dual power’.
The reasons for the dual power regime were explained by Trotsky:
The ‘united front’ of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries dominated the Soviets and actually had power in its hands. The bourgeoisie was completely paralysed politically since ten million soldiers, exhausted by the war, stood fully armed on the side of the workers and peasants. But what the leaders of the ‘united front’ dreaded most of all was to ‘scare off’ the bourgeoisie, to ‘push’ it to the camp of reaction. The united front dared not touch either the imperialist war, or the banks, or feudal land ownership, or the shops and plants. It marked time and spouted general phrases while the masses lost patience. More than that: the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries directly transferred the power to the Cadet party, rejected by the toilers and despised by them. (L. Trotsky, Lessons of October, in Writings 1935-36, pp. 167-68.)
The Mensheviks and SRs clung to the bourgeois liberals. The latter clung to what remained of the old order. The workers and peasants, only recently awakened to political life, were striving to find their way and as yet lacked the experience and self-confidence to rely on their own strength. Lenin grasped immediately the significance of the Soviet as a “real popular government”. But this conception was a book sealed by seven seals to the leaders of all the parties, including, at first, the Bolsheviks themselves. The first concern of the bourgeois liberals was to restore ‘order’ and ‘get things back to normal’. Yet the workers and soldiers, instinctively reluctant to disarm or take a step back, having come so far, looked for guidance and leadership to the Soviet. Increasingly distrustful, a delegation of soldiers and sailors deputies came to the Tauride Palace to present their demands to the Soviet. Two members of this delegation (A.M. Paderin and A.D. Sadovsky) were Bolsheviks.
The vacillations of the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd did not reflect the outlook of the rank-and-file Bolshevik workers who were more in touch with the mood in the factories and barracks. The Bolsheviks in the Vyborg district demanded that power be taken over by the Soviet. Naturally, the Soviet leaders refused on the grounds that the revolution was ‘bourgeois’ and the working class was ‘not ready’ to take power. The bourgeois politicians manoeuvred to head off the revolution. The open defencists favoured the entry of the Soviet leaders into a coalition with the bourgeoisie. The shamefaced defencists (Chkheidze, Sukhanov, Steklov) favoured staying out of the coalition, but not the assumption of power. Instead, the Soviet should ‘control’ the bourgeois government from outside. This attempt to combine fire and water anticipated the position later taken by the German centrists who advocated a mixed constitution in which the workers’ councils (soviets) should exist side by side with the bourgeois government. A similar line was taken by Stalin and Kamenev.
The Menshevik policy went against the grain of the masses, but the latter were politically inexperienced, naïve and trusting in their leaders. The Menshevik orators and ‘big names’ overawed them and silenced their doubts. In the name of ‘unity’ and ‘defence of democracy’, unity of all ‘progressive forces’, etc., they used the argument that the working class could not transform society ‘on its own’, and all the dismal litany traditionally rattled off by the reformist leaders to convince the workers that they are powerless to change society, and must forever put up with the rule of capital. They argued the Soviet would ‘put pressure on the bourgeois liberals’ to act in the workers’ interests.
The Bolsheviks and the Provisional Government
Faced with an entirely new and unexpected turn of events, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd felt out of their depth. They anxiously awaited the arrival of the exiled leaders to provide them with direction. Shlyapnikov admits that the Bolsheviks, who concentrated all their efforts in winning the immediate battle for power, gave little thought to the question of what power meant and how, concretely, the ‘provisional revolutionary government’ would be formed. At bottom, this was the result of a mistaken theory, summed up in the formula ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, which utterly disarmed and disoriented the Bolshevik leaders after the overthrow of tsarism. Even the most radical of them had no other perspective than the consolidation of a bourgeois regime. “The coming revolution must only be a bourgeois revolution,” wrote Olminsky, adding that “that was an obligatory premise for every member of the party, the official opinion of the party, its continual, and unchanging slogan right up to the February Revolution of 1917, and even some time after.” The same idea was expressed even more crudely in Pravda on 7 March, 1917, even before Stalin and Kamenev had given it an even more right-wing slant: “Of course, there is no question among us of the downfall of the rule of capital, but only the downfall of the rule of the autocracy and feudalism.” (Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 127.)
The rank-and-file Bolshevik workers in the factories, in contrast to the leaders, displayed a healthy scepticism and distrust of the Provisional Government from the outset. Their outlook was shaped, not by old slogans, but by their class and revolutionary instinct. At every stage they stood to the left of the Central Committee which, without the steadying hand of Lenin, frequently vacillated. Paradoxically, the absence of the leaders from Petrograd in the beginning permitted the voice of the rank and file to be heard more clearly. Once they got over the initial disorientation, they adopted a more or less correct position. Thus, early on, the Petrograd Bolsheviks issued a manifesto, which Lenin heartily welcomed, To All the Citizens of Russia, demanding a democratic republic, the eight-hour day, seizure of the landlords’ estates, and an immediate end to the war of plunder.
This position would have placed the Bolsheviks on a collision course with all the other tendencies of the ‘progressive camp’ which were attempting to put the brakes on the revolution for the sake of reaching an accommodation with the bourgeois liberals. Although it did not refer to the Soviets it said that:
The factory workers and also the revolutionary soldiers must immediately elect their representatives for a provisional revolutionary government, which must be set up under the protection of the insurrectionary, revolutionary people and army.
The manifesto also appealed for the setting up of soviets.
Proceed immediately to the election in the factories of factory strike committees. Their elected representatives will make up a Soviet of workers’ deputies, which will take upon itself the organising role in the movement, which will set up a provisional revolutionary government.
The instinctively revolutionary position of the Bolshevik rank-and-file, and its opposition to class collaborationism was reflected in the radical stance taken by Pravda in the early days of the revolution, before the arrival of Stalin and Kamenev. Pravda (9/3/1917) wrote:
The Soviet of Workers and Soldiers deputies must immediately get rid of this Provisional Government of the liberal bourgeoisie and declare itself to be the provisional revolutionary government. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 674 and p. 688.)
However, the arrival of the exiles immediately changed things for the worse. Since Lenin was stranded in Switzerland, blocked by the refusal of the Allies to allow him to travel to Russia through their territory, the first to return were those who had been sent to Siberia, Kamenev and Stalin among them. They immediately steered the Party on a rightward course, which signified drawing close to the Mensheviks.
The leaders of the Bolsheviks in Russia joined the Mensheviks and SRs in supporting the Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov, despite all Lenin’s warnings against blocs with the liberal bourgeoisie. Even before the return of Stalin and Kamenev, there were sharp differences. When Molotov, in the name of the Bureau of the Central Committee, put before the Petrograd Committee a resolution criticising the Provisional Government, denouncing its counter-revolutionary policy and calling for its replacement by a “democratic government”, he was rebuffed. Instead, the Petrograd Committee passed a resolution in which it agreed to refrain from attacks on the Provisional Government “so long as its actions correspond to the interests of the proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people”. (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 122.) Instead of appearing as an independent revolutionary force, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd acted as the fifth wheel in the cart of the ‘progressive democrats’. This reflected the pressure of petty-bourgeois public opinion. The general mood in the aftermath of the February overthrow was one of euphoria and universal rejoicing. Intense pressure grew for the unity of all ‘progressive forces’, and weighed heavily on the leading stratum of the most radical wing which was constantly urged to modify its stance and fall into line with the majority. This threw the Bolshevik leaders off balance, and they moved towards accommodation with the Mensheviks. In many areas, local committees of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks spontaneously merged. As Trotsky recalls:
The barriers between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, between the Internationalists and the Patriots, fell down. The whole country was flooded with buoyant but near-sighted and verbose conciliationism. People floundered in the welter of heroic phrases, the principal element of the February Revolution, especially during its first weeks. Groups of exiles started from all the ends of Siberia, merged into one stream and flowed westward in an atmosphere of exultant intoxication. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 181.)
The arrival of the exiles from Siberia instantly imparted a sharp rightward slant to the political positions taken by the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd. Up until this time, the local leadership, made up of Shlyapnikov, Zalutsky, and Molotov, had steered a more radical course. These three leaders stood on the left wing of the party. But the newly arrived Kamenev and Stalin used their seniority to push the party’s line sharply to the right. This was immediately reflected in the pages of the central organ. In an editorial in Pravda on 14 March, two days after his return, Kamenev wrote an editorial in which he asked: “What purpose would it serve to speed things up, when things were already taking place at such a rapid pace?” (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 123.) The next day, he wrote another piece commenting on Kerensky’s statement that Russia would “proudly defend its freedoms” and would not “retreat before the bayonets of the aggressors”. Kamenev enthusiastically concurred, in language which completely renounced Lenin’s policy of opposition to the war:
When army faces army, it would be the most insane policy to suggest to one of those armies to lay down its arms and go home. This would not be a policy of peace, but a policy of slavery, which would be rejected with disgust by a free people. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 75.)
Stalin held the same position as Kamenev, only more cautiously. He published an article approving the stance of the Soviet in its manifesto (which Lenin blasted) and said that what was needed was “to bring pressure to bear on the Provisional Government to make it declare its consent to start peace negotiations immediately”. According to Stalin it was “unquestionable” that “the stark slogan ‘Down with the war!’ was absolutely unsuitable as a practical means”. (J.V. Stalin, Works, vol. 3, p. 8.)
The first All-Russian Conference of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was convened at the end of March 1917. Simultaneously with this, the Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee issued a call for the All-Russian Conference of party workers, which opened on 28 March. This was the first really representative conference of the party to be held since the overthrow of tsarism. Lenin was still struggling to return from his Swiss exile, and was therefore absent. The political proceedings therefore constitute an accurate reflection of how the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd viewed the revolution. Among the central issues discussed were the attitude to the war and the Provisional Government, as well as relations to other parties. The report on the attitude to the Provisional Government was delivered by Stalin. The whole thrust of this report, permeated through and through with opportunistic adaptation and conciliationism, is radically opposed to the line advocated insistently by Lenin.
The central idea of Stalin’s speech is that the Bolsheviks should give critical support to the bourgeois Provisional Government, to act as a kind of loyal opposition, which, while remaining outside the government, and with certain reservations, nevertheless supports it:
Insofar as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution, to that extent we must support it; but in so far as it is counter-revolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.
This position did not command unanimous support at the Conference. In fact, the resolution adopted by the Bureau of the Central Committee, while unsatisfactory, at least made some correct points:
The Provisional Government, brought forward by the moderate bourgeois classes of our society and linked through all its interests with Anglo-French capitalism, is incapable of solving the tasks posed by the revolution.
Therefore the task of the day is: consolidation of all forces around the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies as the embryo of revolutionary power, alone capable both of repelling the attempts on the part of the tsarist and bourgeois counter-revolution as well as realising the demands of revolutionary democracy and of explaining the true class nature of the present government.
The most urgent and important task of the Soviets, the fulfilment of which will alone guarantee the victory over all the forces of counter-revolution and the further development and deepening of the revolution, is, in the opinion of the party, the universal arming of the people, and, in particular, the immediate creation of Workers’ Red Guards throughout the entire land.
The minutes state that Stalin publicly distanced himself from the resolution of the Bureau:
Comrade Stalin reads the resolution on the Provisional Government adopted by the Bureau of the Central Committee, but states that he is not in complete agreement with it, but is rather in accord with the resolution of the Krasnoyarsk Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.
The Krasnoyarsk resolution, which reflects the thinking of the more backward provinces, had a completely opportunist character, based on the idea that the Soviets can coexist with the bourgeois Provisional Government and, by means of pressure, make it submit to its will:
2) To make entirely clear that the only source of the power and the authority of the Provisional Government is the will of the people who have accomplished this revolution and to whom the Provisional Government is obliged wholly to submit.
3) To make likewise clear that the submission of the Provisional Government to the basic demands of the revolution can be secured only by the unrelaxing pressure of the proletariat, the peasantry and the revolutionary Army, who must with unremitting energy maintain their organisation around the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies born out of the revolution, in order to transform the latter into the terrible force of the revolutionary people.
4) To support the Provisional Government in its activities only in so far as it follows a course of satisfying the demands of the working class and the revolutionary peasantry in the revolution that is taking place.
In an incredible intervention in the course of the debate, Stalin made a bad situation still worse:
In such a situation, can one speak of supporting such a government? One can rather speak of the Government supporting us. It is not logical to speak of support of the Provisional Government, on the contrary, it is more proper to speak of the Government not hindering us from putting our programme into effect.
How could the Bolsheviks “put their programme into effect” while allowing a bourgeois government to remain in power? How was it possible to get peace from a government tied hand and foot to British and French capital? How could land be transferred to the peasantry by a government dominated by the “men of property”? The idea that the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets could coexist for any length of time with a government of capitalists, let alone oblige it to act against its own vital interests, was in flagrant contradiction to the ABCs, not only of Marxism, but of common sense. This same formula was later used by the German Social Democratic leaders to derail and destroy the German Revolution of November 1918. Had the line of Stalin and Kamenev prevailed, the Russian Revolution would have undoubtedly ended up in a similar defeat.
The confused nature of these speeches and resolutions, and the disorientation of the Bolsheviks at this time, has its roots in the confused and contradictory nature of the old Bolshevik slogan ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, which Trotsky had pointed out long before. Starting out from the definition of the class nature of the revolution as bourgeois-democratic, the Bolsheviks were now faced with the dilemma of what to do, if the working class was not supposed to take power. Stalin and Kamenev concluded that the working class must support the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie, although hedging it round with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
The line of capitulation to middle-class ‘democracy’ advocated by Stalin and Kamenev effectively blurred the lines of demarcation between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. So much so that the March Conference actually considered the question of fusion. Indeed, if the Stalin-Kamenev line were accepted, there would be no serious reason to maintain the existence of two separate parties. In the session of 30 March, Kamenev reported on his contacts with the Mensheviks, as the minutes show:
Kamenev: Reports that he has entered into negotiations with the internationalist SRs and Mensheviks. Inasmuch as it is clear that an absolutely unacceptable resolution of the Executive Committee [of the Soviets] will be passed, it is necessary to counterpose to it a joint resolution of the internationalists. The SRs (22) are a national minority. They will not vote against the resolution of the Bolsheviks and will withdraw their resolution. The Mensheviks are seeking to introduce a single resolution and are for uniting on a joint resolution. Should factional discipline be imposed to compel the minority to submit to the majority, the internationalists will come out in favour of our resolution.
Those speakers on the left of the party who opposed these moves towards unity and who dared to raise the question of the workers taking power were given short shrift. Thus, when Krassikov intervened on these lines, he was stopped in his tracks by the chairman:
Krassikov: The gist of the matter is not in the amendments and not in a demonstrative presentation of social democratic slogans, but in the current moment. If we recognise the Soviets of Deputies as the organs that express the will of the people, then the question before us is not the consideration of what concrete measures must be taken on this or that issue. If we think that the time has now come to realise the dictatorship of the proletariat, then we ought to pose the question that way. We unquestionably have the physical force for a seizure of power. I believe that we will have sufficient physical force both in Petrograd as well as in other cities. [Commotion in the hall. Shouts: “Not true”.] I was present…
The Chairman (interrupting): The question under discussion involves the practical steps for today. The question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not under discussion.
Krassikov (continues): If we do not pose the question that way then ought we to take steps in relation to the Provisional Government which…
The Chairman deprives him of the floor.
Although formally Kamenev’s proposal was to link up with the left (internationalist) wing of Menshevism, the real intention was to unite in a single party. Prominent Menshevik leaders like Lieber were present at the Conference, and participated in it. On the session of 1 April, a resolution on unity written by the Georgian Menshevik leader Tsereteli was put to the congress. Although representatives of the Bolshevik left wing, including at that time the student Molotov, opposed it, Stalin expressed himself in favourable terms:
Order of the day: Tsereteli’s proposal for unification.
Stalin: We ought to go. It is necessary to define our proposals as to the terms of unification. Unification is possible along the lines of Zimmerwald-Kienthal.
Luganovsky: The Kharkov Committee is carrying on negotiations precisely along these lines.
Molotov: Tsereteli wants to unite heterogeneous elements. Tsereteli calls himself a Zimmerwaldist and a Kienthalist, and for this reason unification along these lines is incorrect both politically and organisationally. It would be more correct to advance a definite internationalist socialist platform. We will unite a compact minority.
Luganovsky (in refuting comrade Molotov) says: At the present time we are unaware of any disagreements. The Mensheviks abstained in the Soviet and spoke more strongly than did… the Bolsheviks who came out against. Many disagreements have been outlived. It is out of place to underscore tactical differences. We can have a joint Congress with the Mensheviks, the Zimmerwaldists and Kienthalists.
In view of the controversy sparked off by this proposal, Stalin once again intervened in the debate to defend unification in unmistakable terms which, despite his habitual caution, faithfully echo his earlier comments, describing the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism as “a storm in a tea-cup”:
Stalin: There is no use running ahead and anticipating disagreements. There is no party life without disagreements. We will live down trivial disagreements within the party. But there is one question – it is impossible to unite what cannot be united. We will have a single party with those who agree on Zimmerwald and Kienthal… (Quoted in L. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, p. 239, p. 240, p. 241, p. 242, p. 255, p. 256, p. 258, p. 274 and p. 275, which reproduces the official transcript of the Conference, my emphasis.)
After all this time, to describe the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism as “trivial disagreements” shows that Stalin, the party ‘practico’, had no real understanding of the fundamental ideas of Bolshevism. These “trivial disagreements” were nothing other than the differences between reformism and revolutionism, between a class policy and a policy of class collaboration. In the end, the Conference voted to allow negotiations with the Mensheviks to proceed, and elected a negotiating committee composed of Stalin, Kamenev, Nogin, and Teodorovich.
Lenin and Trotsky in 1917
From his far-off exile in Switzerland, Lenin watched with growing anxiety the evolution of the line pursued by the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd. Immediately on hearing the news of the Tsar’s overthrow he telegraphed Petrograd on 6 March:
Our tactic: no trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is particularly suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council; no rapprochement with other parties.
As soon as Pravda recommenced publication, Lenin started to send his famous Letters from Afar. Reading these articles, and comparing them to the speeches at the March Conference, we seem to be in two different worlds. No wonder they fell like a bombshell on the astonished Central Committee members! Lenin bombarded Pravda with letters and articles demanding that the workers break with the bourgeois liberals and take power into their own hands. In Letters from Afar we see Lenin’s revolutionary genius in its authentic stature. His ability to sum up the essence of a situation at a glance, his imaginative sweep, his way of grasping precisely which concrete slogans apply, and how to get from A to B. The February Revolution, he stressed in the first letter, had put the Guchkovs and Milyukovs in power “for the time being”. But a capitalist government could not solve the problems of the Russian people.
The tsarist monarchy has been smashed, but not finally destroyed.
Side by side with this government… there has arisen the chief, unofficial, as yet underdeveloped, and comparatively weak workers’ government, which expresses the interests of the proletariat and of the entire poor section of the urban and rural population. This is the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in Petrograd which is seeking connections with the soldiers and peasants, and also with the agricultural workers, with the latter particularly and primarily, of course, more than with the peasants.
Upon the solution of this contradiction, this regime of ‘dual power’, hung the fate of the revolution. What attitude should the Bolsheviks have towards the Provisional Government?
He who says that the workers must support the new government in the interests of the struggle against tsarist reaction (and apparently this is being said by the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs, Chkhenkelis, and also, all evasiveness notwithstanding, by Chkheidze) is a traitor to the workers, a traitor to the cause of the proletariat, to the cause of peace and freedom.
And here Lenin comes over to a position that is identical to that first defended by Trotsky over a decade earlier:
Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own unity, and their own weapons.
In the second letter, Lenin makes a withering criticism of the Manifesto issued by the leaders of the Soviet, which hides behind pacifist phraseology, declares that all democrats must support the Provisional Government, and authorises Kerensky to enter it. Lenin retorts that:
The task is not to ‘coax’ the liberals, but to explain to the workers why the liberals find themselves in a blind alley, why they are bound hand and foot, why they conceal both the treaties tsarism concluded with England and other countries and the deals between Russian and Anglo-French capital, and so forth. (LCW, Telegram to the Bolsheviks Leaving for Russia, 6 (19) March 1917, vol. 23, p. 292, p. 298, p. 304, p. 305, p. 306 and p. 317, emphasis in original.)
When Lenin’s letters reached the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, they were aghast. They thought that their leader must be completely insane! Or at least, he must be so far out of touch as to fail to understand the practicalities of the situation in Russia. A bitter conflict now opened up between Lenin and his closest comrades. In Pravda No. 27, Kamenev wrote:
As for Comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears to us to be unacceptable, inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution. (LCW, Letters on Tactics, vol. 24, p. 50.)
This accurately conveys the opinions of Kamenev, Stalin, and most of the other ‘Old Bolsheviks’ in the spring of 1917.
Out of all the leaders of the Social Democracy at that time, only one completely coincided with the position defended by Lenin. That man was Leon Trotsky, with whom Lenin had clashed so frequently in the past. When Trotsky first heard of the February Revolution, he was still in exile in the United States. Immediately he wrote a series of articles in the paper Novy Mir (New World), which were published in its issues of 13, 17, 19, and 20 March 1917. What is most striking is the fact that, although there was no communication between Trotsky and Lenin, who was thousands of miles away in Switzerland, the content of these articles is identical to that of Lenin’s Letters From Afar, written at the same time. Let us recall that these letters of Lenin proved to be so shocking to the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd that Kamenev and Stalin had them suppressed or published in a mutilated form. At a time when the ‘Old Bolsheviks’, against Lenin’s explicit advice, were moving closer to the Mensheviks, Lenin’s ideas seemed to them to be pure ‘Trotskyism’, and they were not wrong. The logic of events had pushed Lenin and Trotsky together. Independently, and starting from different directions, they came to the same conclusion: the bourgeoisie cannot solve the problems of Russia. The workers must take power.
In his article ‘Two Faces – Internal Forces of the Russian Revolution’, Trotsky wrote:
Formally, in words, the bourgeoisie has agreed to leave the question of a form of government to the discretion of the Constituent Assembly. Practically, however, the Octobrist-Cadet Provisional Government will turn all the preparatory work for the Constituent Assembly into a campaign in favour of a monarchy against a republic. The character of the Constituent Assembly will largely depend upon the character of those who convoke it. It is evident, therefore, that right now the revolutionary proletariat will have to set up its own organs, the Councils of Workingmen’s, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, against the executive organs of the Provisional Government. In this struggle the proletariat ought to unite about itself the rising masses of the people, with one aim in view – to seize governmental power. Only a revolutionary labour government will have the desire and ability to give the country a thorough democratic cleansing during the work preparatory to the Constituent Assembly, to reconstruct the army from top to bottom, to turn it into a revolutionary militia, and to show the poorer peasants in practice that their only salvation is in support of a revolutionary labour regime. A Constituent Assembly convoked after such preparatory work will truly reflect the revolutionary, creative forces of the country and become a powerful factor in the further development of the revolution. (L. Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, pp. 46-47.)
These lines, which are typical of the position taken by Trotsky at the time, exactly reproduce that of Lenin. But Lenin was not aware of this. He was misled by the false reports of Trotsky’s position sent from America by Alexandra Kollontai, who, having only recently broken with Menshevism, was anxious to present herself to Lenin as an ultra-radical, and falsely presented Trotsky as a ‘centrist’. Lenin accepted this nonsense as good coin and wrote some very harsh things about Trotsky in his replies to Kollontai, which were later used unscrupulously by the Stalinists. Only later, when Trotsky had returned to Russia and immediately began to play an outstanding role in the revolutionary wing, did Lenin change his opinion of Trotsky, saying of him that there was “no better Bolshevik”. As for Kollontai, she carried her ultra-leftism to its logical conclusion, entering into conflict with both Lenin and Trotsky, before she finally became a submissive servant of the totalitarian regime of Stalin.
The complete convergence of views between Lenin and Trotsky in the moment of truth was no accident. As long ago as 1909, Leon Trotsky – the only one to predict that the revolution would triumph as a workers’ revolution or not at all – had warned that the counter-revolutionary nature of the slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ would only become clear in the moment when the question of power was posed. Now he was proved to have been correct. The weak side of Lenin’s theory, and its effect in practice, was the cause of very serious mistakes made by the Bolshevik leaders at the time of the February Revolution, which were only corrected by Lenin after his return on the basis of a sharp internal struggle. Even Zinoviev admits this in his tendentious History of the Bolshevik Party, published in 1923 as part of the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’, although in a typically roundabout and dishonest way:
This evolution in our views over the years from 1905 to 1917 cannot be denied, any more than the fact that it proceeded with definite inconsistencies which were to produce among us very dangerous differences on the eve of October 1917. Some of us (including myself) for too long upheld the idea that in our peasant country we could not pass straight on to the socialist revolution, but merely hope that if our revolution coincided with the start of the international proletarian one it could become its overture. (G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, pp. 177-78.)
These lines, despite their evasive character, hold the clue to all that happened in the Bolshevik Party in the first few months after February 1917. What happened to his letters sheds a lot of light on Lenin’s relations with the ‘Old Bolsheviks’. It was a carbon copy of what had happened in 1912–13. Even the actors were the same. Stalin and Kamenev were once again the editors. Once again they opted for the line of least resistance called conciliationism. And once again they reacted to Lenin’s criticism and protests by blatant censorship. The Bolshevik leaders were so embarrassed by Lenin’s letters that, when Kollontai brought the first two letters to Petrograd late in March, they hesitated for several days before publishing. Even then, they printed only one of the two, which was censored to cut out all those passages where Lenin opposed any agreement with the Mensheviks. The same fate awaited the remainder of Lenin’s articles. They were just not published or issued in a mutilated form. Krupskaya comments:
Only the first letter was published on the day Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg, three others were lying in the editors’ office and the fifth had not even been sent to Pravda, as Lenin had started writing it just before leaving for Russia. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 338.)
In his autobiography, Trotsky recalls:
In New York, at the beginning of March, 1917, I wrote a series of articles dealing with the class forces and perspectives of the Russian Revolution. At that very time, Lenin, in Geneva, was sending to Petrograd his Letters From Afar. And both of us, though we were writing in different parts of the world and were separated by an ocean, gave the same analysis and the same forecast. On every one of the principal questions, such as the attitude toward the peasantry, toward the bourgeoisie, the Provisional Government, the war, and the world revolution, our views were completely identical. Here a test of the relations between ‘Trotskyism’ and Leninism was made on the very touchstone of history. And it was carried out under the conditions of a chemically pure experiment. At that time I knew nothing of Lenin’s stand; I argued on the basis of my own premises and my own revolutionary experience, and I drew the same perspective and suggested the same line of strategy as Lenin.
But perhaps the question was quite clear to everyone at that time, and the solution universally accepted? On the contrary; Lenin’s stand at that period, that is, before 4 April, 1917, when he first appeared on the Petrograd stage, was his own personal one, shared by no one else. Not one of those leaders of the party who were in Russia had any intention of making the dictatorship of the proletariat – the social revolution – the immediate object of his policy. A party conference which met on the eve of Lenin’s arrival and counted among its numbers about 30 Bolsheviks showed that none of them even imagined anything beyond democracy. No wonder the minutes of that conference are still kept a secret! Stalin was in favour of supporting the Provisional Government of Guchkov and Milyukov, and of merging the Bolsheviks with the Mensheviks. (L. Trotsky, My Life, pp. 329-30.)
Lenin Rearms the Party
On 3 April, after weeks of frustrating negotiations to arrange his return through Germany, Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in revolutionary Petrograd. From the moment of his arrival, he adopted a belligerent stance in relation to the bourgeois Provisional Government and the defencist-reformist politicians who were propping it up.
Immediately on his return to Russia, Lenin opened up a struggle against those Bolshevik leaders who had capitulated to the pressures of petty-bourgeois ‘public opinion’, and had come out in support of the bourgeois Provisional Government. Only after an extremely sharp internal fight did he succeed in rearming and reorienting the Bolsheviks. In this struggle Lenin counted on the support of the Party rank and file, and the working class which, as he never tired of pointing out, is a hundred times more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party. In fact, the line of Kamenev was not well received by the Party in Petrograd, which called for his expulsion. The working-class Bolshevik stronghold of Vyborg demanded the expulsion of Stalin also. (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 123.)
At the very moment of his arrival in the Finland Station, Lenin served notice of his intentions. Demonstratively turning his back on the assembled dignitaries who had turned up to greet him, he faced the workers with the words: “Long live the socialist world revolution!” This opening shot immediately confirmed the worst suspicions of the party leaders: that Lenin had gone over to – ‘Trotskyism’. A fierce faction fight ensued, culminating in the April Conference in which Lenin triumphed all along the line. Krupskaya writes:
The comrades were somewhat taken aback for the moment. Many of them thought that Ilyich was presenting the case in much too blunt a manner, and that it was too early yet to speak of a socialist revolution. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 347 and p. 348.)
It is obvious that Krupskaya is expressing herself in a diplomatic manner. The differences were of the most serious kind, and the struggle, though not long, was bitterly fought. When Lenin first defended his position in public, the audience was left speechless.
In his memoirs, Raskolnikov, who was present, recalls what happened when Kamenev walked into Lenin’s compartment:
Hardly had he entered the compartment and sat down than Vladimir Ilyich turned on Comrade Kamenev. “What’s this you’re writing in Pravda? We’ve seen several issues, and really swore at you…” we heard Ilyich say in his tone of fatherly reproof, in which there was never anything offensive.
Immediately after his arrival at the Finland Station, he was taken to a fashionable residence, the property of a famous ballerina, where in a big room complete with grand piano Lenin was regaled with welcoming speeches – the kind of thing he hated:
A celebration in honour of Ilyich was held here. One after another speakers voiced their feeling of profoundest joy at the return to Russia of the Party’s battle-hardened leader.
Ilyich sat and listened with a smile to all the speeches, waiting impatiently for them to finish.
When the list of speakers was exhausted, Ilyich at once came to life, got to his feet and set to work. He resolutely assailed the tactics which the leading Party groups and individual comrades had been pursuing before his return. He caustically ridiculed the notorious formula of support for the Provisional Government ‘in so far as… to that extent’, and gave out the slogan, ‘No support whatsoever to the government of capitalists’, at the same time calling on the Party to fight for power to be taken over by the Soviets, for a socialist revolution.
Using a few striking examples, Comrade Lenin brilliantly demonstrated the whole falsity of the policy of the Provisional Government, the glaring contradiction between its promises and its actions, between words and deeds, emphasising that it was our duty to expose ruthlessly its counter-revolutionary and anti-democratic pretensions and conduct. Comrade Lenin’s speech lasted nearly an hour. The audience remained fixed in intense, unweakening attention. The most responsible Party workers were represented here, but even for them what Ilyich said constituted a veritable revelation. It laid down a ‘Rubicon’ between the tactics of yesterday and those of today.
Comrade Lenin posed the question clearly and distinctly: ‘What is to be done?’ and summoned us away from half-recognition, half-support of the Government to non-recognition and irreconcilable struggle.
The ultimate triumph of Soviet power, which many saw as something in the hazy distance of a more or less indefinite future, was brought down by Comrade Lenin to the plane of an urgently necessary conquest of the revolution, to be attained within a very short time. This speech of his was in the fullest sense historic. Comrade Lenin here first set forth his political programme, which he formulated next day in the famous theses of 4 April. This speech produced a complete revolution in the thinking of the Party’s leaders, and underlay all the subsequent work of the Bolsheviks. It was not without cause that our Party’s tactics did not follow a straight line, but after Lenin’s return took a sharp turn to the left. (F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, p. 71 and pp. 76-77.)
Taken aback by the conduct of the Bolshevik leader, so completely at variance with that of his lieutenants in Petrograd, the Mensheviks accused him of trying to stir up violence and civil war. In the pages of his journal Yedinstvo, Plekhanov called Lenin’s theses ‘ravings’. But the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders was not much different. When Lenin’s April Theses were published in the pages of Pravda, on 7 April, they appeared over a single signature – Lenin’s own. Not one of the other leaders was prepared to associate their name with Lenin’s position. The very next day, Pravda published an article by Kamenev entitled Our Disagreements, which disassociated the Bolshevik leadership from Lenin’s position, stating that it represented his own private views which were shared neither by the editorial board of Pravda nor by the Bureau of the Central Committee.
Notwithstanding the reaction of the Mensheviks and the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, Lenin was not insane and was, in fact, more ‘in touch’ with the real situation than his comrades in Russia. For him the essence of the question was very simple: it was necessary to prepare the working class for the seizure of power, not, of course, immediately. Lenin was no adventurist and the idea of a minority taking power was very far from his mind. No. The task of the hour was to arm the vanguard of the class – the most advanced sections of the workers and youth – with the perspective of winning over the masses to the programme of socialist revolution as the only way out. This correctly summed up the essence of the situation. But it clashed head-on with the slogan of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ which everyone knew was not the slogan of a socialist revolution.
The matter was finally settled at a citywide conference which lasted eight days, from 2-10 April, and is known to history as the April Conference. The conference was attended by 149 delegates representing 79,000 members – 15,000 of them in Petrograd. This was already an impressive result for a party that had been underground and now stood in opposition to the mainstream labour leaders. Rarely has so much depended on the outcome of a single meeting as this. Lenin confronted in open struggle his old colleagues of many years standing who, in the decisive moment, turned out to be his bitterest opponents. Ironically, these ‘Old Bolsheviks’ rallied under the banner of – Leninism! They presented themselves as the defenders of Leninist orthodoxy as summed up in the slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, which Lenin himself had advanced in 1905. But this formula had outlived its usefulness. The very development of the revolution had rendered it redundant.
Both Lenin and Trotsky, as we have seen, had come to the same conclusion. They understood that the Kerensky government could not seriously tackle the problems facing the workers and peasants; but that was precisely because it was a government of the bourgeoisie, not of the workers and peasants. Only the dictatorship of the proletariat, in alliance with the poor peasants, could begin to solve the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia. As Trotsky put it:
The ‘Old Bolsheviks’ – who pretentiously emphasised this appellation in April 1917 – were condemned to defeat precisely because they were defending exactly that element of the party tradition which had not passed the historic test.
The inner-party struggle was brief but sharp. But the great strength that Lenin had was the backing of the Bolshevik workers, who stood well to the left of the leadership. They felt from the beginning that there was something wrong with a policy that, against all their instincts and traditions, stood for reconciliation with the Mensheviks and a temporising attitude to the bourgeois Provisional Government. But the workers were unable to answer the ‘clever’ arguments of the leaders like Kamenev and Stalin who used their authority to silence the doubts of the rank and file. On the contrary, Lenin based himself on the support of the party’s working-class rank and file who instinctively accepted his revolutionary theses:
These worker-revolutionists only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position. But they were ready to respond to the first clear call. It was on this stratum of workers, decisively risen to their feet during the upward years of 1912–14, that Lenin was now banking. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 338 and p. 339.)
By the time the April Conference assembled, the battle had, to all intents and purposes, been won by Lenin and the party’s rank and file. Zalezhky, who was a member of the Petrograd Committee, states that “District after district adhered to them [Lenin’s theses]”.
Lenin’s opening speech emphasised the international dimension of the revolution:
The great honour of beginning the revolution has fallen to the Russian proletariat. But the Russian proletariat must not forget that its movement and revolution are only part of a world revolutionary proletarian movement, which in Germany, for example, is gaining momentum with every passing day. Only from this angle can we define our tasks.
This was the opening shot in the debate and Lenin weighs every word. What does it mean? Lenin answers the argument of the Mensheviks, Kamenev, and Stalin that the Russian workers cannot take power because the objective conditions in backward, feudal Russia do not permit it. And the answer is as follows: it is true that the objective conditions for socialism do not exist in Russia, but they do exist on a world scale. Our revolution is not an independent act, but part of the world revolution. If we have the possibility of assuming power before the German, French, and British workers, then we should do so. We can begin the revolution, take power, start to transform society on socialist lines, and this will give a powerful impulse to the revolution that is already maturing in Europe. We can begin, and with the help of the workers of Germany, France, and Britain, we shall finish the job. Of course, if we do not have the perspective of international revolution, our task would indeed be hopeless. But that is not the position. “Only from this angle can we define our tasks.” The same theme was hammered home repeatedly by Lenin during the course of the conference.
Yes, we are in the minority. Well, what of it? To be a socialist while chauvinism is the craze means to be in the minority. To be in the majority means to be a chauvinist.
Lenin’s resolution on the Current Situation stated:
“Operating as it does in one of the most backward countries of Europe amidst a vast population of small peasants, the proletariat of Russia cannot aim at immediately putting into effect socialist changes.
“But it would be a grave error, and in effect even a complete desertion to the bourgeoisie, to infer from this that the working class must support the bourgeoisie, or that it must keep its activities within limits acceptable to the petty bourgeoisie, or that the proletariat must renounce its leading role in the matter of explaining to the people the urgency of taking a number of practical steps towards socialism for which the time is now ripe.”
From the first premise it is customary to make the conclusion that “Russia is a backward country, a peasant, petty-bourgeois country, therefore there can be no question of a social revolution”. People forget, however, that the war has placed us in extraordinary circumstances, and that side by side with the petty bourgeoisie we have big capital. But what are the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies to do when they assume power? Should they go over to the bourgeoisie? Our answer is – the working class will continue its class struggle. (LCW, The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP(B), vol. 24, p. 227 (my emphasis), p. 245 and p. 306.)
But at this point we hear a clamour of protest from people who readily call themselves ‘Old Bolsheviks’. Didn’t we always maintain, they say, that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed only by the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’? Is the agrarian revolution, which is also a bourgeois-democratic revolution, completed? Is it not a fact, on the contrary, that it has not even started?
My answer is: The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone could have expected.
To ignore or overlook this fact would mean taking after those ‘old Bolsheviks’ who more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality. (LCW, Letters on Tactics, vol. 24, p. 44.)
In answer to those elements who asserted that the proletariat had to obey the ‘iron law of historical stages’, could not ‘skip February’, had to ‘pass through the stage of the bourgeois revolution’, and who thereby tried to cover up their own cowardice, confusion and impotence by appealing to ‘objective factors’, Lenin replied scornfully:
Why didn’t they take power? Steklov says: for this reason and that. This is nonsense. The fact is that the proletariat is not organised and class conscious enough. This must be admitted; material strength is in the hands of the proletariat, but the bourgeoisie turned out to be prepared and class conscious. This is a monstrous fact, but it should be frankly and openly admitted, and the people should be told that they didn’t take power because they were unorganised and not conscious enough. (LCW, Report at a Meeting of Bolshevik Delegates, vol. 36, p. 437.)
There was no objective reason why the workers – who held power in their hands – could not have elbowed the bourgeoisie to one side in February 1917, no reason other than unpreparedness, lack of organisation, and lack of consciousness. But this, as Lenin explained, was merely the obverse side of the colossal betrayal of the revolution by all the so-called workers’ and peasants’ parties. Without the complicity of the Mensheviks and SRs in the Soviets, the Provisional Government could not have lasted even for an hour. That is why Lenin reserved his most stinging barbs for those elements among the Bolshevik leadership who had got the Bolshevik Party itself into tow with the Menshevik-SR bandwagon, which had confused and disoriented the masses, and deflected them from the road to power.
The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘old Bolsheviks’).
Referring to the power of the working class, and the impotence of the Provisional Government, Lenin pointed out:
This fact does not fit into the old schemes. One must know how to adapt schemes to facts, instead of reiterating the now meaningless words about a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ in general.
Is this reality [of dual power] covered by Comrade Kamenev’s old-Bolshevik formula, which says that the “bourgeois-democratic revolution is not completed”?
It is not. The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it. (LCW, Letters on Tactics, vol. 24, p. 45, p. 46 and p. 50, my emphasis.)
One point Lenin was particularly emphatic about. It was essential that the Bolsheviks maintain absolute independence from all other tendencies. Lenin was all too aware that in the general atmosphere of euphoria, there would be a strong pull in the direction of unification of ‘all progressive trends’. The history of conciliationism on the part of the Old Bolsheviks, particularly Kamenev, filled him with apprehension. That is why he wrote in his first telegram: “No rapprochement with other parties”. On the other hand, at the March Conference, Stalin was already contemplating the overcoming of “trivial differences” within the framework of a united party of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin’s narrow committeeman’s mentality saw everything from the standpoint of organisation. A bigger party meant more members, more money, a bigger apparatus, and consequently a broader arena in which to develop his activities. Compared to this, what were a few theoretical differences but – “trivialities”? Here, in a particularly crude form, we see the difference between the psychology of a revolutionary and a bureaucrat.
The Old Bolsheviks thought they could bring about unity with the Mensheviks on the basis of the “Zimmerwald-Kienthal principles” precisely when the Zimmerwald movement had exhausted its historic mission and was in the process of breaking up. In any case, it had always been a compromise, a transitional step in the direction of a new and genuinely revolutionary International. Lenin had already made his mind up. Not ‘back to Zimmerwald’ but ‘forward to the Third International!’ was his slogan. In a letter to Radek dated 29 May he wrote:
I fully agree with you that Zimmerwald has become a hindrance and that the sooner we break with it the better (you know that I disagree with the conference on this point). We must speed up a meeting of the Lefts, an international meeting and only of the Lefts.
One week later he wrote:
If it’s true that that muddled wretched Grimm (no wonder we never trusted that ministeriable scoundrel!) has handed over all Zimmerwald affairs to the Left Swedes and that the latter are convening a Zimmerwald conference within the next few days, then I – personally (I am writing this only in my own name) – would strongly warn against having anything to do with Zimmerwald.
“What a good chance this is to seize the Zimmerwald International now,” Grigory said today.
In my opinion, this is super-opportunist and harmful tactics. (LCW, To Karl Radek, 29 May (11 June), 1917, vol. 43, p. 632 and pp. 634-35.)
The First Coalition
The most burning issue facing the revolution was the war and the ever deepening mood of discontent of the soldiers. After the collapse of the old regime, the soldiers spontaneously moved to purge the officers who had opposed the revolution. The men in grey coats demanded their right to be treated like human beings, not animals. Out of this was born the celebrated Order Number One, which Trotsky describes as “the single worthy document of the February Revolution”. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 291.) The initiative for this remarkable document came from the ranks themselves. In it one can hear the real voice of the front, the anguished but hopeful voice of men who, staring death in the face, had not lost the spark of human dignity and the desire to be treated like human beings. Here, in turn, was the real face of the February Revolution: not the studied and artificial speeches of the politicians, but the masses newly awakened to political life seeking democratic rights and freedom in place of the old ranks and servility. Order Number One expresses better than anything else the democratic and revolutionary aspirations of the masses.
The demands put forward represented a real soldiers’ charter:
Elected committees at all level of the army and the navy.
Election of representatives to the Soviet where these have not been held.
The soldiers will obey only the Soviet and its committees.
The orders of the Provisional Government will be obeyed only where they are not in contradiction to those of the Soviet.
All weapons to be under the control of elected soldiers’ committees, and in no case to be given to officers.
While on duty, strict maintenance of discipline: when off duty and out of barracks, full freedom and civil rights.
Elimination of officers’ titles, no ‘bull’; officers are forbidden to behave rudely to soldiers, and especially to use the familiar form (‘ty’) when addressing them.
The demands were called ‘Order Number One’. It fell like a bombshell among the reactionary officers and their political friends in the Provisional Government. Here was a challenge to the autocratic ‘divine right’ of the officer caste to rule the roost, and, by extension, a challenge to the pillars of the existing bourgeois order. The ‘Provisional Committee of the Duma’ immediately clashed with the soldiers’ deputies who drew up the ‘Order Number One’ for the Petrograd garrison. The reactionary officers, now sporting republican insignia in their buttonholes, tried to prevent it being carried out at the front, alleging it to be a “purely Petrograd affair”. In this they had the backing of the SRs and Mensheviks, who were as anxious as they to put an end to the revolutionary ‘madness’ and restore (bourgeois) order. In vain. The demand for democratic rights contained in the ‘soldiers charter’ spread through the army like wildfire. The clash over Order Number One showed the shape of things to come.
What the army wanted was the immediate conclusion of a peace without annexations or indemnities. The Soviet leaders made speeches about a ‘just peace’, but as long as the power remained in the hands of bankers and industrialists, tied hand and foot to the interests of Anglo-French capital, this was just a dream. Throughout the spring, the discontent of the soldiers grew, as the government dragged its feet over the question of peace. The bourgeoisie, through its chief representative in the government, Milyukov, made no secret of its intention to pursue the war to a “victorious conclusion”. This enraged the soldiers and created an explosive situation in Petrograd.
The processes that unfolded after February can be observed in every revolution. The fall of the old regime is greeted with enthusiasm by the masses. There is universal rejoicing, as men and women enjoy the new-found freedoms. This is the stage of democratic illusions, a carnival in which people become drunk with the sensation of liberation and hopes that know no bounds. Alas, this beautiful love feast is not destined to last. The enormity of the illusion rapidly finds its counterpart in the depth of disappointment as expectation cracks its head against reality. “We have scotched the serpent, not killed him,” exclaims Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Gradually, the idea begins to dawn upon the masses that, beneath the tinsel and the speeches, nothing has really changed. The old order has merely swapped its garb and its mode of address, but the same old masters still remain, and the same old problems too.
This rapid spread of disillusionment does not affect all layers at once. It finds its first expression in the ranks of the most advanced section of the masses. Vaguely realising that the power won with so much effort and sacrifice is slipping out of their hands, the advanced guard instinctively lashes out. This is a moment of utmost danger for the revolution. The advanced guard understands more than the mass, and impatiently pushes ahead with demands for precipitate action. But it is necessary to win over the rest of society, which lags behind and has not yet drawn the necessary conclusions. If the advanced guard breaks away from the mass, it can become isolated and cut down by the reaction. Under such conditions it is the duty of the party to attempt to restrain the advanced elements, to avoid battle until such time as the reserve battalions are in place.
The process of successive approximation by which the masses search out the political party that best expresses their aspirations commenced as soon as the revolution began. There were a whole succession of what we can liken to sorties in a battle, in which the masses tested out the defences of the enemy and their own strength. These sorties took the form of mass demonstrations, beginning in April, when thousands of workers, soldiers, and sailors poured onto the streets of Petrograd, carrying banners displaying the slogans: ‘Down with Milyukov!’ ‘Down with Annexation Politics!’ and even the odd ultra-left ‘Down with the Provisional Government!’ These were undoubtedly Bolshevik slogans, but the demonstrations themselves had not been called by the party. As Alexander Rabinowitch explains:
Rank-and-file party members from garrison regiments and factories undoubtedly helped provoke the street demonstrations in the first place, although the Central Committee did not become involved until after the movement was well underway; subsequently, the top party leadership endorsed the demonstrations. Impulsive elements in the Petrograd party organisation and in the Bolshevik Military Organisation, responsive to their militant constituents and fearful of losing ground to the anarchists, took a significantly more radical tack; some officials of the Petersburg Committee prepared and widely circulated a leaflet appealing, in the party’s name, for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government and the arrest of cabinet ministers. (A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. xxxii.)
The immediate aim of the demonstration was to protest against plans to continue the war. But this question raised the question of power. The April mobilisations were the first in a whole series of mass demonstrations whereby the masses attempted to force the government and the Soviet leaders to do their bidding. In essence, they played a similar role to reconnaissance missions in war, probing the weaknesses of the enemy and allowing the workers and soldiers to test their strength on the streets. Significantly, the demonstrators only agreed to disperse when asked to do so by the Petrograd Soviet, having openly defied the government’s orders to disperse. This detail says it all. The real power was in the hands, not of the Provisional Government, which the masses hated and distrusted, but in the hands of the reformist leaders, the ‘moderate socialists’ in the Soviet Executive, who feared it as the Devil fears holy water. The masses were compelled to take the reformists by the scruff of the neck and push them into the government. That was the real meaning of the April demonstrations. The sudden eruption of the masses onto the street had an immediate result. The government entered into crisis, in which the bourgeoisie was forced to pass the hot potato to the reformist leaders.
The April demonstration was the first serious test of strength between the workers and the Provisional Government and its right-wing socialist backers. And it was successful. Two of the bourgeois ministers most hated for their pro-war policies, Guchkov and Milyukov, were forced to resign, and several leaders of the Soviet entered the government. The Georgian Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli became Minister of Post and Telegraphs. The veteran SR Victor Chernov became Minister of Agriculture. Alexei Peshekonov, head of the Popular Socialist Party, became Minister of Food supply. Pavel Pereverzev occupied the post of Minister of Justice, and Kerensky became the Minister of War and the Navy. In this way the Soviet leaders accepted direct responsibility for the Provisional Government, instead of supporting it from the outside. The first coalition had been formed.
The masses mostly welcomed this as a sign that ‘their’ ministers would somehow bring about a change of course in the government. But Lenin immediately denounced the participation of the Mensheviks and SRs in the government, pointing out that, by joining the bourgeois Provisional Government, the SRs and Mensheviks “saved it from collapse and allowed themselves to be made its servants and defenders”. (LCW, vol. 25, p. 237.) The Soviet leaders were, in effect, hostages of the bourgeois ministers who called all the shots. They accepted ministerial portfolios, while the real power was left in the hands of the landlords and capitalists, except that here there was another, alternative power which was waiting with anxious expectation for its most pressing problems to be resolved. Vain hope! Terrified of offending the bourgeoisie, who, according to the dogma of the ‘two stages’ ought to rule, the reformist leaders merely acted as a left cover for the Provisional Government, which, in turn, was merely a façade behind which the forces of reaction were regrouping and preparing for a counter-attack, once the masses had been sufficiently demoralised and disappointed by the school of coalition politics.
This coalition of the labour leaders with the bourgeoisie was shot through with insoluble contradictions which paralysed it from the start. It was essentially similar to all such coalitions, from Millerandism in France, passing through the Lib-Lab politics of the British labour leaders to the so-called People’s Front governments in France and Spain in the 1930s. All were justified in the name of the ‘unity of progressive forces’ and ‘national unity’ – the emptiest of all slogans, signifying the ‘unity’ of the horse and its rider. In reality, through such coalitions, the bourgeoisie use and discredit the labour leaders in order to demoralise the masses, while behind the scenes they prepare reaction. The Provisional Government after April was entirely typical of this kind of coalition. The Soviet leaders were placed in those ministries that would bring them in conflict with the aspirations of the workers and peasants: labour, agriculture, and so on. Kerensky, who enjoyed a measure of popularity to begin with, was entrusted with whipping the soldiers into line and getting them to accept the need for a new offensive in the name of “peace, progress, and democracy”, of course.
The entry of the ‘socialist’ ministers into the Provisional Government was a turning point. From now on the workers and peasants could compare words and deeds. The ground was being prepared for the reformist labour leaders to be exposed in practice. That was one side of the question. But the most decisive element was the fact that, under Lenin’s guidance, the Bolsheviks had stayed out of the coalition and maintained an implacable opposition towards it. What had seemed to some a utopian and sectarian stance was now revealed as the only realistic position for a revolutionary party. This was the key to the success of the Bolsheviks and the reason why they grew so rapidly at the expense of the Mensheviks and SRs in the following months. As Rabinowitch observes:
Once they had joined the first coalition, the moderate socialists became identified in the popular mind with the shortcomings of the Provisional Government. Only the Bolsheviks, among the major Russian political groups, remained untainted by association with the government and were therefore completely free to organise opposition to it, a situation of which the party took full advantage. (A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. xxviii.)
But the revolutionary wing faced an uphill struggle that must have seemed all but impossible at first. Their slogans seemed too far advanced for the masses. The Menshevik and SR leaders, on the other hand, offered them what seemed to be the easy option. The revolution had triumphed. Russia was now the freest country in the world. With a little patience, all would be resolved. What was needed was for everyone to unite and sink their differences and everything would be fine. The intense pressure for unity was one of the reasons why Kamenev and Stalin had capitulated to the Mensheviks before Lenin’s return. Their mistake had been to see only the situation before them, and not to see the underlying process that would soon stand all this on its head. The philosophical basis of all kinds of reformism is vulgar empiricism that masquerades as ‘realism’, or, as Trotsky once expressed it, the slavish worship of the established fact. But what is a ‘fact’ at one moment can become a fiction the next. In order that the masses should draw the necessary conclusions, two things are necessary: firstly, that the working people, through their own experience, come to understand their true situation, and secondly, that there exists a revolutionary party with a far-sighted leadership capable of going through the experience together with them and explaining its significance at each stage.
But the masses do not all draw the same conclusions simultaneously. By June-July, a layer of the advanced workers and sailors in Petrograd had drawn a balance sheet of the Provisional Government and the Soviet leaders and found them wanting. Likewise, a section of the Bolshevik Party, under the influence of impatience, wanted to move too far ahead too soon; echoing the ultra-lefts and anarchists, they raised the revolutionary slogan ‘Down with the Provisional Government’. This was the slogan of insurrection. What attitude did Lenin take? He completely rejected it. Why? Because such a slogan did not at all correspond to the real stage the movement was at. Lenin, who was a revolutionary to the fingertips, nevertheless implacably opposed this slogan, and instead oriented the Party towards the conquest of the masses, insisting on the need to ‘patiently explain’. The problem was that the mass of the working class in the more backward provinces had not yet had time to understand the role of the reformist leaders in the Soviets, and the peasants still less so. The Bolsheviks had succeeded in winning the most advanced sections of the class. But it would have been a fatal error to bring these into collision with the less conscious majority who still had illusions in the Mensheviks and SRs. Basing themselves on the advanced workers, the Bolsheviks now had to find the way to winning over the majority.
The explosive growth of Bolshevism in the nine months from February to October is a phenomenon for which it would be difficult to find a parallel in the history of political parties. The year 1917 perfectly sums up the whole essence and meaning of the history of Bolshevism. All programmes, policies, tactics, and strategies are finally subjected to the acid test of practice. Nowhere is this assertion truer than in the course of a revolution. Looking back on the experience of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky commented:
We must remember, however, that at the beginning of 1917 the Bolshevik Party led only an insignificant number of the toilers. Not only in the soldiers’ soviets but also in the workers’ soviets, the Bolshevik fraction generally constituted 1 to 2 per cent, at best 5 per cent. The leading parties of petty-bourgeois democracy (Mensheviks and the so-called Social Revolutionaries) had the following of at least 95 per cent of the workers, soldiers, and peasants participating in the struggle. The leaders of these parties called the Bolsheviks first sectarians and then… agents of the German Kaiser. But no, the Bolsheviks were not sectarians! All their attention was directed to the masses, and moreover not to their top layer, but to the deepest, most oppressed millions and tens of millions, whom the parliamentarian babblers usually forgot. Precisely in order to lead the proletarians and the semi-proletarians of city and countryside, the Bolsheviks considered it necessary to distinguish themselves sharply from all factions and groupings of the bourgeoisie, beginning with those false ‘Socialists’ who are in reality agents of the bourgeoisie. (L. Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, pp. 166-67.)
As we have seen, the Bolshevik Party before the war had succeeded in winning over the decisive majority of the organised workers. In a sense it was the traditional party of the working class in Russia. But during the war, the class balance of forces was drastically modified. The youth – the natural ‘constituency’ of Bolshevism – was in the army. A large part of the experienced worker-cadres, too, were at the front, where they were submerged in a sea of backward and politically illiterate peasants. The workers’ organisations were decimated by arrests. The workers had their heads down. The influx of a large number of inexperienced elements into the factories – peasants, women, raw youths – made things worse at first. Under such circumstances, no serious advance was possible. It was sufficient to keep what was left of the cadres together and prepare for a break in the situation.
It is difficult to calculate with any precision the membership of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, and different authors give different estimates. The ‘official’ estimate given by the Bol’shoya Sovietskaya Encyclopedia was 23,600 for January 1917, before the start of the revolution, but this piece of guesswork is certainly an exaggeration. The figure of 8,000 members in the whole of Russia is probably not far from the true figure. Rabinowitch claims that there were 2,000 members in Petrograd in February and that the national membership of the party doubled to 16,000 by April:
In February there had been about 2,000 Bolsheviks in Petrograd. At the opening of the April Conference party membership had risen to 16,000. By late June it had reached 32,000, while 2,000 garrison soldiers had joined the Bolshevik Military Organisation and 4,000 soldiers had become associated with the ‘Club Pravda’…
The overwhelming majority of the new recruits were very raw, as the same author points out:
The party’s rapid growth since February had flooded the ranks with militants who knew next to nothing about Marxism and who were united by little more than an overwhelming impatience for immediate revolutionary action. (A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, pp. xxix-xxx and p. xxxi.)
The rapid influx of new, fresh recruits, many of them youngsters (the Mensheviks contemptuously referred to the Bolsheviks as ‘a party of kids’), was part of the reason why Lenin could succeed in overcoming the resistance of the conservative ‘Old Bolsheviks’. This transformed the party. Marcel Liebman points out that:
[B]eginning in April 1917, the Bolshevik Party was reinforced by a steady and large-scale influx of new members. This influx had the effect of crushing the nucleus of ‘old Bolsheviks’ who claimed to be the guardians of Leninist orthodoxy, submerging them under the weight of new members who had been radicalised by the revolutionary events and were not paralysed by the principles of that orthodoxy. (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 134.)
The most significant feature of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was its youthfulness. With one exception, all the members of the Moscow party Bureau were under 30 years old. There was a conflict between the Bureau and the Moscow Party Committee, which was made up of older, more conservative Party members. In his biography of Bukharin, Stephen F. Cohen describes the situation of the Bolsheviks in Moscow:
While a majority of the Moscow Committee eventually supported insurrection, its response to the radical course set by Lenin and the Left was sluggish and half-hearted throughout. Most of its senior members believed, as one insisted, that “There do not exist the forces, the objective conditions for this”. Bureau leaders, constantly prodding their elders, remained worried as late as October that the “peace-loving” mood and “significant wavering” in the Moscow Committee would prove fatal “at the decisive moment”. Consequently, despite the radical support of some older Moscow Bolsheviks, the young Muscovites tended to regard the final victory in Moscow as their personal achievement, a tour de force of their generation. As Osinsky later put it, they had led the struggle for power “against significant resistance by a large part of the older generation of Moscow officials”. (S.F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, p. 50.)
‘All Power to the Soviets’
Having won over the Party to the aim of a new revolution led by the working class, Lenin indicated the next step, which was to win the masses. Nothing could be further from the truth than the oft-repeated slander that Lenin was a conspirator, bent on the seizure of power by a minority of revolutionaries, as advocated by the great French revolutionary of the 19th century, Blanqui. Without for a moment doubting the personal sincerity and heroism of Blanqui, who developed important insights on the technique of insurrection, Lenin never had the view that the socialist revolution could be brought about by a determined minority. All his life, Lenin maintained a burning faith in the revolutionary potential and creative capacity of the working class. Socialism must be based on the self-movement of the proletariat, its active participation and control of society from the very first moment. Even before his return to Russia there were a number of Bolsheviks who, motivated by impatience, advanced the slogan ‘Down with the Provisional Government’. This was an ultra-left slogan, because the mass of the workers were still under the influence of the reformist leaders of the Soviets, who were supporting the Provisional Government. The task facing the Bolshevik Party at that stage was not the conquest of power, but the conquest of the masses. This idea was summed up in Lenin’s celebrated watchword: Patiently explain!
The Bolshevik Party had succeeded in winning over a significant number of the most conscious and advanced layers of the class. Their influence, especially in Petrograd, was growing by the hour. But that was insufficient. In order to change society, it is not enough to have the support of the vanguard, or to be a party of tens of thousands. It is necessary to win over the millions of politically backward workers, and, in the case of Russia, at least a large section of the peasants, beginning with the poor peasants and rural proletariat and semi-proletariat. In the spring of 1917, this gigantic task was still at its early beginnings. It was essential that the Bolshevik workers open a road to the rest of the class, especially in the provinces, who had illusions in the reformist leaders. It was necessary to speak to them in a language they could understand, and to avoid ultra-left gestures that would repel them.
Lenin understood that the working class learns from experience, especially the experience of great events. The only way in which a revolutionary tendency which is as yet in the minority can gain the ear of the masses is by following the course of events shoulder to shoulder with the masses, participating in the day-to-day struggle as it unfolds, advancing slogans which correspond to the real stage of the movement, and patiently explaining the need for a complete transformation of society as the only way out. Shrill calls to insurrection and civil war will not win over the masses, or even the advanced layer, but only repel them. As we see from the above, this is true even in the middle of a revolution. On the contrary, it is necessary to put the onus for violence and civil war on the shoulders of the reformist leaders who have it in their hands to take power peacefully and, by their refusal to do so, make bloodshed inevitable.
Realising that the ruling class wanted to provoke the workers into premature acts of violence, Lenin denounced those who claimed that he stood for civil war. He repeatedly denied that the Bolsheviks stood for violence, and placed full responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class. This did not at all suit the ultra-lefts who failed to understand that nine-tenths of the task of the socialist revolution is the work of winning over the masses by propaganda, agitation, explanation, and organisation. Without this, all talk of civil war and insurrection is irresponsible adventurism, or, as it is called in the scientific terminology of Marxism, Blanquism.
Here is what Lenin has to say on the subject: “To speak of civil war before people have come to realise the need for it is undoubtedly to lapse into Blanquism.” (LCW, The 7th (April) All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP(B), vol. 24, p. 236, my emphasis.)
It was not the Bolsheviks, but the bourgeoisie and their reformist allies who constantly raised the spectre of violence and civil war. Lenin repeatedly denied any suggestion that the Bolsheviks advocated violence. On 25 April, he protested in Pravda against “dark insinuations” of “Minister Nekrasov” about “the preaching of violence” by the Bolsheviks:
You are lying, Mr. Minister, worthy member of the ‘people’s freedom’ party. It is Mr. Guchkov who is preaching violence when he threatens to punish the soldiers for dismissing the authorities. It is Russkaya Volya, the riot-mongering newspaper of the riot-mongering ‘republicans’, a paper that is friendly to you, that preaches violence.
Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely that our main efforts should now be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems, as distinguished from the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist intoxication. (LCW, A Shameless Lie of the Capitalists, vol. 24, pp. 110-11.)
On 21 April (4 May, NS) the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution written by Lenin. The aim of the resolution was to restrain the Petrograd local leadership which was running ahead of events. It aimed to put the responsibility for any violence on the Provisional Government and its supporters, and to accuse the “capitalist minority of reluctance to submit to the will of the majority”. Here are two paragraphs from the resolution:
1. Party propagandists and speakers must refute the despicable lies of the capitalist papers and of the papers supporting the capitalists to the effect that we are holding out the threat of civil war. This is a despicable lie, for only at the present moment, as long as the capitalists and their government cannot and dare not use force against the masses, as long as the mass of soldiers and workers are freely expressing their will and freely electing and displacing all authorities – at such a moment any thought of civil war would be naïve, senseless, preposterous; at such a moment there must be compliance with the will of the majority of the population and free criticism of this will by the discontented minority; should violence be resorted to, the responsibility will fall on the Provisional Government and its supporters.
2. By their outcries against civil war the government of the capitalists and its newspapers are only trying to conceal the reluctance of the capitalists, who admittedly constitute an insignificant minority of the people, to submit to the will of the majority. (LCW, Resolution of the CC of the RSDLP(B) Adopted 21 April (4 May), 1917, vol. 24, p. 201.)
In all his speeches and articles of the first half of 1917, Lenin emphasises the possibility and desirability of a peaceful transfer of power to the Soviets. He even stated that compensation could be paid to the capitalists whose industries were taken over, on condition that they handed the factories over without any sabotage, and collaborated in the process of reorganising production:
Don’t try to frighten us, Mr. Shulgin. Even when we are in power we shall not take your ‘last shirt’ from you, but shall see that you are provided with good clothes and good food, on condition that you do the job you are fit for and used to! (LCW, Titbits for the ‘Newborn’ Government, vol. 24, p. 363.)
Everyone knows that this was the central slogan of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917. But very few people have understood the real content of this slogan. What, concretely, was the meaning of the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’? Civil war? Insurrection? The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks? Far from it. The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the Soviets, which were dominated by the reformist parties, the SRs and Mensheviks. The central task was not the seizure of power, but winning over the majority who had illusions in the reformists. The Bolsheviks based their ‘patient explanation’ on the idea, constantly reiterated in the writings and speeches of Lenin from March right up to the eve of the October insurrection, that the reformist leaders should take power into their own hands, that this would guarantee a peaceful transformation of society, that the Bolsheviks were wholeheartedly in favour of this, and that, if the reformist leaders were to take power, the Bolsheviks would limit themselves to the peaceful struggle for a majority inside the Soviets.
Here are a couple of examples of how Lenin put the question (there are many more):
Apparently, not all the supporters of the slogan ‘All Power Must Be Transferred to the Soviets’ have given adequate thought to the fact that it was a slogan for peaceful progress of the revolution – peaceful not only in the sense that nobody, no class, no force of any importance, would then (between 27 February and 4 July) have been able to resist and prevent the transfer of power to the Soviets. That is not all. Peaceful development would then have been possible, even in the sense that the struggle of classes and parties within the Soviets could have assumed a most peaceful and painless form, provided full state power had passed to the Soviets in good time. (LCW, On Slogans, vol. 25, p. 186.)
After the failure of the Kornilov uprising, in an article called ‘On Compromises’, Lenin once again adopted the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’ and advocated a compromise proposal to the reformist leaders, whereby the Bolsheviks would not press the idea of an insurrection, on condition that the Soviet leaders break with the bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. This would have easily been possible after the collapse of the counter-revolutionary offensive. The reactionaries were demoralised and disoriented. The workers were confident and a massive majority supported the transfer of power to the Soviets. Under such conditions, the revolution could have been carried out peacefully, without violence and civil war. Nothing could have prevented it. One word from the Soviet leadership would have been enough. After that, the question of which party would rule could have been settled through peaceful debate inside the Soviets:
I think the Bolsheviks would advance no other conditions, trusting that the revolution would proceed peacefully and party strife in the Soviets would be peacefully overcome thanks to really complete freedom of propaganda and the immediate establishment of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections) and in their functioning.
Perhaps this is already impossible? Perhaps. But if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realising such a possibility is still worthwhile. (LCW, ‘On Compromises’, vol. 25, p. 307.)
Lenin was firmly convinced that a peaceful revolution was not only possible but probable, on one condition – that the reformist leaders in the Soviets took power instead of dedicating all their energies to propping up the rule of the landlords and capitalists. But their refusal to take power, particularly after the defeat of Kornilov, threatened Russia with catastrophe. This is the eternal contradiction of reformism – that, by clinging to the notion of a slow, gradual, peaceful transformation of society, they always create the most convulsive, catastrophic and violent conditions, preparing the way for the victory of reaction. Lenin was scathing about the hesitations and vacillations of the Mensheviks and SRs, who refused to break with the bourgeoisie and take power. As always, the reformists tried to frighten the masses with the alleged danger of civil war, an assertion which Lenin treated with well-merited contempt and ridicule. In his article ‘The Russian Revolution and Civil War’, Lenin answers these arguments, point by point:
If there is an absolutely undisputed lesson of the revolution, one fully proved by facts, it is that only an alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, only an immediate transfer of all power to the Soviets would make civil war in Russia impossible, for a civil war begun by the bourgeoisie against such an alliance, against the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, is inconceivable; such a ‘war’ would not last even until the first battle; the bourgeoisie, for the second time since the Kornilov revolt, would not be able to move even the Savage Division, or the former number of Cossack units against the Soviet Government! (LCW, ‘The Russian Revolution and Civil War’, vol. 26, p. 36.)
He argues that a government that bases itself on the mass of workers and peasants, that puts an end to the war, that gives land to the peasants and acts in the interests of the working people, could brush aside the resistance of the propertied classes, and that, on that basis:
A peaceful development of the revolution is possible and probable if all power is transferred to the Soviets. The struggle of parties for power within the Soviets may proceed peacefully, if the Soviets are made fully democratic, and ‘petty thefts’ and violations of democratic principles, such as giving the soldiers one representative to every 500, while the workers have one representative to every 1,000 voters, are eliminated. In a democratic republic such petty thefts will have to disappear.
When confronted with Soviets that have given all the land to the peasants without compensation and offer a just peace to all the peoples – when confronted with such Soviets the alliance of the British, French, and Russian bourgeoisie, the Kornilovs, Buchanans, Ryabushinskys, Milyukovs, Plekhanovs, and Potresovs is quite impotent and is not to be feared.
The bourgeoisie’s resistance to the transfer of the land to the peasants without compensation, to similar reforms in other realms of life, to a just peace and a break with imperialism, is, of course, inevitable. But for such resistance to reach the stage of civil war, masses of some kind are necessary, masses capable of fighting and vanquishing the Soviets. The bourgeoisie does not have these masses, and has nowhere to get them.
It is astonishing that even now, Lenin’s approach to the question of power is not understood. Not only do the bourgeois enemies of Bolshevism persistently strive to pin firmly upon Lenin the label of a violent fanatic, hell-bent on blood and mayhem (Orlando Figes is the latest to peddle this disgusting distortion), but, incredibly, many of the sectarian grouplets who, for some reason, imagine themselves to be great Leninists, repeat the same childish nonsense about the inevitability of violence and civil war, without even realising that Lenin’s position was just the opposite. In dozens of articles and speeches in the course of 1917, Lenin explained that the notion that revolution necessarily meant bloodshed was a reactionary lie, deliberately put in circulation by the bourgeois and reformists in order to frighten the masses:
Some speak about ‘rivers of blood’ in a civil war. This is mentioned in the resolution of the Kornilovite Cadets quoted above. This phrase is repeated in a thousand ways by all the bourgeois and opportunists. Since the Kornilov revolt all the class-conscious workers laugh, will continue to laugh and cannot help laughing at it. (Ibid., p. 37 and p. 38.)
If we examine world history over the last hundred years, we see that, on countless occasions and in many countries, the working class could have taken power peacefully, as in 1917, if the leaders of the trade unions and mass Socialist and Communist parties had willed it. But, like the Russian Mensheviks and SRs, they had no intention of taking power. They found a thousand and one ‘clever’ arguments to show that the ‘time was not ripe’, the ‘correlation of forces was unfavourable’, and of course there was a danger of civil war, violence, the streets running with blood and so on. This was, after all, the argument of the German labour leaders in 1933, when Hitler boasted that he had come to power “without breaking a window pane”, although the German workers’ organisations were the most powerful in the world. It is always the same story with these ladies and gentlemen. Their reformist ‘gradualism’ always prepares a catastrophe. If there is bloodshed, it is always the result of these policies of class collaboration, of parliamentary cretinism, of popular frontism, which considered itself to be ‘realistic’ and ‘practical’ but always turns out to be the worst kind of utopianism in the end.
Our business is to help do everything possible to secure the ‘last’ chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help this by presenting our programme, by making clear its general, national character, its absolute harmony with the interests and demands of an enormous majority of the population.
Having seized power, the Soviet could still at present – and that is probably their last chance – secure a peaceful development of the revolution, peaceful elections of the deputies by the people, a peaceful struggle of the parties inside the Soviets, a testing of the programmes of various parties in practice, a peaceful passing of power from one party to another. (LCW, vol. 21, book I, p. 257 and pp. 263-64.)
And here is how Trotsky sums up the position in The History of the Russian Revolution:
The transfer of power to the Soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the good will of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses. The dictatorship of the workers and soldiers had been a fact since the 27th of February. But the workers and soldiers were not [at that point necessarily] aware of that fact. They had confided the power to the Compromisers, who in their turn had passed it over to the bourgeoisie. The calculations of the Bolsheviks on a peaceful development of the revolution rested, not on the hope that the bourgeoisie would voluntarily turn over the power to the workers and soldiers, but that the workers and soldiers would in good season prevent the Compromisers from surrendering the power to the bourgeoisie.
The concentration of the power in the Soviets under a regime of soviet democracy, would have opened before the Bolsheviks a complete opportunity to become a majority in the Soviet, and consequently to create a government on the basis of their programme. For this end an armed insurrection would have been unnecessary. The interchange of power between the parties could have been accomplished peacefully. All the efforts of the party from April to July had been directed towards making possible a peaceful development of the revolution through the Soviet. ‘Patiently explain’ – that had been the key to the Bolshevik policy. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 816, my emphasis.)
But maybe Lenin and Trotsky were only bluffing? Maybe they only put forward the idea of a peaceful transition in order to gain popularity with the workers, making allowance for their reformist pacifist illusions? To imagine such a thing would be to not understand anything of the method of Lenin and Trotsky, based on fearless revolutionary honesty. In his testimony before the Dewey Commission, Trotsky puts this very clearly: “I believe that the Marxist, the revolutionary, policy in general is a very simple policy: ‘Speak out what is! Don’t lie! Tell the truth!’ It is a very simple policy.” (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p. 384.)
The Bolshevik Party did not have two different programmes, one for the educated few and one for the ‘ignorant’ workers. Lenin and Trotsky always told the truth to the working class, even when this was bitter and unpalatable. If in 1917, that is in the midst of a revolution, when the question of power was poised point blank, they insisted on the idea that a peaceful transformation was possible (not ‘theoretically’ but actually possible), on condition only that the reformist leaders took decisive action, it could only be because this was actually the case. And so it was. Had the Soviet leadership acted decisively, the revolution would have taken place peacefully, without civil war, because they had the support of the overwhelming majority of society. In pointing this simple fact out to the workers and peasants, Lenin and Trotsky were not telling lies, or abandoning the Marxist theory of the state, but merely saying what was obviously true to the mass of workers and peasants.
By bringing out the contradiction between the words and deeds of the reformist leaders, the Bolsheviks prepared the way to winning over the decisive majority in the Soviets, and also in the army (which was also represented in the Soviets). This was the real way in which the Bolshevik Party prepared for insurrection in 1917, not by talking about it, but by actually penetrating the masses and their organisations with flexible tactics and slogans which really corresponded to the demands of the situation, and connected with the consciousness of the masses, not lifeless abstractions learned by rote from a revolutionary cookbook. The only reason why a peaceful revolution was not immediately achieved in Russia was because of the cowardice and treachery of the reformist leaders in the Soviets, as Lenin and Trotsky explained a hundred times.
Unless and until the revolutionary party wins the masses, it is pointless and counterproductive to place the emphasis on the alleged inevitability of violence and civil war. Such an approach, far from ‘educating’ the cadres or preparing them for serious revolutionary work (which at this stage consists almost entirely of the patient preparatory work of gaining points of support among the workers and youth and the labour movement) is more likely to confuse and disorient the cadres and alienate the workers we are trying to win. This was never the method of the great Marxist thinkers in the past, but was always a characteristic of the ultra-left sects on the fringes of the labour movement, who live in a ‘revolutionary’ dream-world all of their own, which bears no relation to the real world. In this hothouse, shut away from reality, small groups can while away the time endlessly debating the ‘insurrection’ and mentally ‘preparing’ themselves for the ‘inevitability of civil war’ while the real task of building the revolutionary organisation entirely escapes them.
In what way does a Marxist tendency concretely prepare for power? By winning over the masses. In what way can this task be achieved? By working out a programme of transitional demands which, setting out from the real situation of society and the objective needs of the working class and the youth, links the immediate demands to the central idea of expropriating the capitalists and transforming society. As Lenin and Trotsky explained many times, nine-tenths of the task of revolution consists precisely in this. Unless this fact is grasped, all talk about armed struggle, ‘military preparations’, and civil war is reduced to irresponsible demagogy.
As we have pointed out, when the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the Soviets, which were entirely dominated by the reformist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were striving for an alliance with the bourgeoisie, they did not play with insurrection, but stressed the need to win a majority in the Soviets (“patiently explain”). The masses tended to look for what appeared to be the easiest, most economical solutions to their problems. That is why the Russian workers and peasants trusted the reformist leaders then as now. The Bolsheviks had to take this fact as their starting point. Lenin had a deep understanding of the psychology of the masses. On 8 July, he wrote:
The masses are still looking for the ‘easiest’ way out – through the bloc of the Cadets with the bloc of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks.
But there is no way out. (LCW, A Disorderly Revolution, vol. 25, p. 129.)
The June Days
Beginning in 1905, Lenin had advanced the slogan of a workers’ militia as a central demand for the revolution. It was no accident that the arming of the workers was one of the first demands he put forward in his telegram to the Bolsheviks from Switzerland. In fact, the Russian workers were already carrying this demand into practice without waiting to be told.
In the armed clashes of February, the workers, beginning with the activists, seized a large quantity of arms. 40,000 rifles and 30,000 revolvers were seized from the arsenal alone. A further 24,000 rifles and 400,000 cartridges were reluctantly handed over by the Provisional Government’s Military Commission between 2 and 3 March. On this basis, the workers’ militia was formed, firstly to patrol the workers districts, keeping order, preventing pogroms and disarming criminal and hooligan elements. Before long, however, they began to go onto the offensive against counter-revolutionary elements, including oppressive and unpopular members of management. The workers militia had nothing in common with terrorism and guerrillaism, but emerged from the mass movement and was subordinated to it, being closely linked to the Soviets and factory committees that everywhere began to spring up after the February Revolution. If we agree that state power is “armed bodies of men”, then power in Petrograd was in the hands of the armed people. By 19 March, there were 85 militia centres functioning in the city, of which 20 were under the control of factory committees or similar bodies. They numbered around 10,000 or 12,000 as opposed to the 8,000 of the regular militia. “In essence,” commented the Populist A.V. Peshekonov, “all power rested completely in the hands of the crowd.”
On 28 April, a conference was organised, on the initiative of the Left Menshevik N. Rostov, of elected representatives from 156 enterprises to set up the Red Guard. The statutes of the new force, drafted by Shlyapnikov and adopted by the Vyborg District Soviet, controlled by the Bolsheviks, stated its aims as “to struggle against the counter-revolutionary intrigues of the ruling class [and] defend with arms in hand all conquests of the working class”, but at the same time “to safeguard the lives, security and property of all citizens without distinction of sex, age or nationality”. Membership was open to any man or woman who could prove membership of a socialist party or union, and was elected or recommended by a general meeting of their workmates. The basic unit was the squad of ten (desyatok); these were to combine to make up a ‘sotnya’, or unit of one hundred, and ten such companies were to constitute a battalion. The whole force was under the control of the district soviet (most of which were controlled by the Bolsheviks). All officers were elected by the rank and file.
Thus, in the beginnings, the workers’ militias saw their role in purely defensive terms. But in the course of experience, their role became transformed, passing almost imperceptibly from defence to offence, until, by November, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, they could place on the order of the day the seizure of state power. One recent analyst has estimated that, on the eve of the October Revolution, the militias counted in their ranks between 70,000 and 100,000. Of these, roughly 15–20,000 were in Petrograd and the surrounding area, and about 10–15,000 in Moscow and the Central Industrial Region. (Quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, p. 91 and p. 95.)
With every day that passed, the role of the reformist leaders of the Soviets was becoming exposed. The first All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was held in Petrograd from 3 June to 24 June, passed a resolution pledging full support for the government. The Bolsheviks were in a small minority at the Congress: 105 delegates, as against 533 for the Mensheviks and SRs. But the mood in the factories and garrisons in the capital was growing increasingly restless. The large numbers of new recruits made this mood felt within the Bolshevik Party. In early June, under the influence of these moods, the Bolsheviks’ Military Organisation had projected an armed demonstration in Petrograd to coincide with the congress. The purpose of the demonstration was to put pressure on the Congress. But it was also a response to the increasing pressure of the advanced workers of Petrograd who were straining at the leash to take power. Had the Bolsheviks not placed themselves at the head of the workers, all kinds of ultra-left and anarchist elements could have exploited the situation to provoke premature armed clashes with calamitous results.
The workers of Petrograd had a clear message for the Soviet leaders: “Take over power in the state! Break with the bourgeoisie! Break the coalition and take power into your own hands!” But the last thing the petty-bourgeois Soviet leaders wanted was power, and the movement of the Petrograd workers terrified them. They were convinced that the Bolsheviks were using the armed demonstration as a front to take power. Such an idea was very far from Lenin’s mind at this stage. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks were attempting to restrain the workers of Petrograd, understanding that the time for a decisive showdown was not ripe. True, the workers could have taken power in Petrograd in June. But the provinces had not yet had time to catch up with the capital. The mass of the workers and peasants would have interpreted this as an attack on ‘their’ government, and rallied to the Soviet leaders who would not have hesitated to drown the movement in blood. The Russian Revolution would have ended up as a heroic failure, like the Paris Commune. Lenin had no intention of going down that road.
In a panic reaction, the Soviet leaders opened up a savage campaign against the projected demonstration. Understanding what this meant, the Bolsheviks decided to retreat and the demonstration was called off. They were still in a small minority at the Congress, and acted accordingly. The main task was still that of winning over a majority in the Soviet by patient work, propaganda and agitation. The question of taking power while the party remained a small minority simply did not arise. The Bolsheviks’ decision to stage a tactical retreat was shown to be correct by what happened next.
To compensate for the calling-off of the Bolsheviks’ demonstration, the reformist leaders called their own ‘official’ demonstration – and had the shock of their lives. On 1 July, the masses poured onto the streets of Petrograd in answer to the call of the Soviet leaders. But in their hands they carried banners with Bolshevik slogans:
Down with the secret treaties! Down with the policy of strategic offensives! Long live an honourable peace! Down with the ten capitalist ministers! and All power to the Soviet!
In the entire demonstration there were only three placards that expressed confidence in the Provisional Government – one from a Cossack regiment, one from Plekhanov’s tiny group, and one from the Bund. This demonstration showed not only the reformist leaders but also the Bolsheviks themselves that they were far stronger in Petrograd than they had imagined.
So long as they were in a minority, Lenin and Trotsky did their utmost to restrain the workers and soldiers, to avoid a premature confrontation with the state. All their emphasis was on peaceful agitation and propaganda. This was not an easy thing to do. For their pains, Lenin and Trotsky frequently incurred the anger of sections of the workers who had moved a bit too far ahead of the class. They were accused of opportunism for not pushing the question of armed insurrection into the foreground. To such criticism, they merely shrugged their shoulders. They understood that the most pressing task was to win over the majority of the workers and soldiers who remained under the influence of the Mensheviks and SRs. That was the real significance of the slogan “all power to the Soviets”. Lenin maintained this position up until July, when he advocated dropping it in favour of “all power to the factory committees”.
At the Congress of Soviets, Lenin made a speech which sums up his whole approach to the question of winning over the workers in the Soviets. No trace of shrill, strident denunciations, but instead a patient, positive-sounding appeal to the workers which takes into account their illusions in the reformist leaders, but at the same time states clearly what is. He warned that only two alternatives were possible:
One or the other: either the usual bourgeois government, in which case the peasants’, workers’, soldiers’ and other Soviets are useless and will either be broken up by the generals, the counter-revolutionary generals, who keep a hold on the armed forces and pay no heed to Minister Kerensky’s fancy speeches, or they will die an inglorious death. They have no other choice. They can neither retreat nor stand still. They can exist only by advancing. (LCW, First All-Russia Congress of Soviets, vol. 25, p. 18.)
Then he turned his attention to the burning issue of the war. His analysis of the situation is so clear, the message so direct, that it could not fail to strike a chord with the delegates, even though they were overwhelmingly in favour of the Mensheviks and SRs at this stage. With no trace of rhetoric or demagogy, by the force of an iron logic, Lenin ruthlessly strips away all the diplomatic verbiage to lay bare the class interests that lie beneath:
The capitalists continue to plunder the people’s property. The imperialist war continues. And yet we are promised reforms, reforms and more reforms, which cannot be accomplished at all under these circumstances, because the war crushes and determines everything. Why do you disagree with those who say the war is not being waged over capitalist profits? It is, first of all, which class is in power, which class continues to be the master, which class continues to make hundreds of thousands of millions from banking and financial operations. It is the same capitalist class and the war therefore continues to be imperialist. Neither the first Provisional Government nor the government with the near-socialist Ministers has changed anything. The secret treaties remain secret. Russia is fighting for the Straits, fighting to continue Lyakhov’s policy in Persia, and so on.
I know you don’t want this, that most of you don’t want it, and that the Ministers don’t want it, because no one can want it, for it means the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people. But take the offensive which the Milyukovs and Maklakovs are now talking about so much. They know full well what that means. They know it is linked with the question of power, with the question of revolution. We are told we must distinguish between political and strategic issues. It is ridiculous to raise this question at all. The Cadets perfectly understand that the point at issue is a political one.
It is slander to say the revolutionary struggle for peace that has begun from below might lead to a separate peace treaty. The first step we should take if we had power would be to arrest the biggest capitalists and cut all the threads of their intrigues. Without this, all talk about peace without annexations and indemnities is utterly meaningless. Our second step would be to declare to all people over the head of their governments that we regard all capitalists as robbers – Tereshchenko, who is not a bit better than Milyukov, just a little less stupid, the French capitalists, the British capitalists, and all the rest.
Your own Izvestiya has got into a muddle and proposes to keep the status quo instead of peace without annexations and indemnities. Our idea of peace ‘without annexations’ is different. Even the Peasant Congress comes nearer the truth when it speaks of a ‘federal’ republic, thereby expressing the idea that the Russian republic does not want to oppress any nation, either in the new or in the old way, and does not want to force any nation, either Finland or the Ukraine, with both of whom impermissible and intolerable conflicts are being created. We want a single and undivided republic of Russia with a firm government. But a firm government can be secured only by the voluntary agreement of all people concerned. ‘Revolutionary democracy’ are big words, but they are being applied to a government that by its petty fault-finding is complicating the problem of the Ukraine and Finland, which do not even want to secede. They only say, “Don’t postpone the application of the elementary principles of democracy until the Constituent Assembly!”
A peace treaty without annexations and indemnities cannot be concluded until you have renounced your own annexations. It is ridiculous, a comedy, every worker in Europe is laughing at us, saying: You talk very eloquently and call on the people to overthrow the bankers, but you send your own bankers into the Ministry. Arrest them, expose their tricks, get to know the hidden springs! But that you don’t do although you have powerful organisations which cannot be resisted. You have gone through 1905 and 1917. You know that revolution is not made to order, that revolutions in other countries were made by the hard and bloody method of insurrection, and in Russia there is no group, no class, that would resist the power of the Soviets. In Russia, this revolution can, by way of exception, be a peaceful one. Were this revolution to propose peace to all peoples today or tomorrow, by breaking with all the capitalist classes, both France and Germany, their people, that is, would accept very soon, because these countries are perishing, because Germany’s position is hopeless, because she cannot save herself and because France – (Chairman: “Your time is up.”)
I shall finish in half a minute. (Commotion; requests from the audience that the speaker continue; protests and applause.)
Clearly impressed, almost in spite of themselves, the majority decided to give the speaker extra time, and Lenin continued his speech, exposing the imperialist nature of the war, but, again taking into account the ‘honest defencist’ inclinations of his audience, explains revolutionary defeatism in a language which could get an echo from the workers and soldiers. We are not pacifists, he says. We are prepared to fight against the Kaiser, who is also our enemy. But we do not trust the capitalists. Get rid of the ten capitalist ministers! Let the Soviet leaders take the power, and we will wage a revolutionary war against German imperialism, while fighting to extend the revolution to Germany and all the other belligerent powers. That is the only way to get peace:
When we take power into our own hands, we shall curb the capitalists, and then the war will not be the kind of war that is being waged now, because the nature of a war is determined by what class wages it, not by what is written on paper. You can write on paper anything you like. But as long as the capitalist class has a majority in the government the war will remain an imperialist war no matter what you write, no matter how eloquent you are, no matter how many near-socialist ministers you have…
The war remains an imperialist war, and however much you may desire peace, however sincere your sympathy for the working people and your desire for peace – I am fully convinced that by and large it must be sincere – you are powerless, because the war can only be ended by taking the revolution further. When the revolution began in Russia, a revolutionary struggle for peace from below also began. If you were to take power into your hands, if power were to pass to the revolutionary organisations to be used for combating the Russian capitalists, then the working people of some countries would believe you and you could propose peace. Then our peace would be ensured at least from two sides, by the two nations who are being bled white and whose cause is hopeless – Germany and France. And if circumstances then obliged us to wage a revolutionary war – no one knows, and we do not rule out the possibility – we should say: “We are not pacifists, we do not renounce war when the revolutionary class is in power and has actually deprived the capitalists of the opportunity to influence things in any way, to exacerbate the economic dislocation which enables them to make hundreds of millions.” The revolutionary government would explain to absolutely every nation that every nation must be free, and that just as the German nation must not fight to retain Alsace and Lorraine, so the French nation must not fight for its colonies. For, while France is fighting for her colonies, Russia has Khiva and Bokhara, which are also something like colonies. Then the division of colonies will begin. And how are they to be divided? On what basis? According to strength. But strength has changed. The capitalists are in a situation where their only way out is war. When you take over revolutionary power, you will have a revolutionary way of securing peace, namely, by addressing a revolutionary appeal to all nations and explaining your tactics by your own example. (Ibid., pp. 21-23 and pp. 26-27.)
What is most striking here is the complete absence of Lenin’s earlier formulations on “revolutionary defeatism”. No reference to civil war. No call to the soldiers to turn their bayonets against their officers, and certainly no hint that the defeat of Russia would be the “lesser evil!” This change reflects an important shift in Lenin’s thinking on tactics since February. The question of defencism versus revolutionary defeatism, which he frequently presented in very black-and-white terms in the previous period, turned out to be not so simple. Of course, fundamentally Lenin’s position on the war had not changed. The change of regime from tsarist autocracy to a bourgeois-democratic republic did not mean that the war on Russia’s side was any less imperialist than before. But when he returned to Russia, Lenin said that he had found, as well as the usual social-chauvinist crowd, a wide layer of honest working class defencists in the Soviets who had to learn by experience and argument the reactionary nature of the war. To have merely repeated the old slogans would have been to cut off the Bolsheviks utterly from the working class. A new approach was needed, which reflected the difference between writing and speaking for small groups of party activists and addressing the broad mass of workers recently awakened to political life.
The July Days
The reformist leaders of the Soviets remained deaf to all these appeals. The cowardice of the Mensheviks and SRs, in refusing to take power, meant that the initiative inevitably passed to the forces of reaction. Despite the February overturn, the tsarist regime had not been decisively defeated. Behind the shirt tails of the Russian popular front (the Provisional Government), the ruling class was regrouping and preparing its revenge. The result was the reaction of the ‘July Days’. The immediate issue was the offensive of 1 July. On the very day that the workers and soldiers were demonstrating on the streets of Petrograd demanding peace and the publication of the secret treaties, Kerensky launched a new offensive. ‘Spontaneous’ patriotic demonstrations were organised on the Nevsky Prospekt, where smartly dressed bourgeois ladies and gentlemen vied with officers and journalists in their invective against the Bolsheviks. The reactionaries were once again crawling out of the woodwork, encouraged by news of the offensive.
At the Congress of Soviets, the Bolshevik minority energetically protested against the offensive, pointing out that it would lead to a strengthening of the reactionary elements in the armed forces, who would take advantage of the situation to attempt to re-establish discipline and regain control. The revolution would be placed in the gravest danger:
An offensive, whatever its outcome may be from the military point of view, means politically strengthening imperialist morale, imperialist sentiments, and infatuation with imperialism. It means strengthening the old, unchanged army officers (‘waging the war as we have been waging it so far’), and strengthening the main position of the counter-revolution. (LCW, An Alliance to Stop the Revolution, vol. 25, p. 53.)
These warnings were subsequently made flesh in the person of General Kornilov. If the offensive succeeded, it would encourage the reactionary forces and push a layer of the petty bourgeois and peasants towards the bourgeoisie, isolating the revolutionary proletariat. If it failed, it could lead to the complete collapse of the army, producing a demobilising effect on the masses. In the event, the latter variant was what occurred.
On 2 July a ministerial crisis broke out over the Ukrainian question, which revealed the utter inability of the Provisional Government to solve the national question. The case for breaking the coalition and ejecting the bourgeois ministers was never clearer. But the more the crisis deepened, the more the ‘socialist’ ministers clung to the bourgeois liberals. Kerensky was moving rapidly to the right and becoming indistinguishable from the Cadet ministers. The reformist leaders were terrified of the masses. The June demonstration had given them a fright, and the more they saw the increase in the influence of the Bolsheviks, the more they saw the danger to their position from the left, and clung still more fervently to the right. The Bolsheviks, for their part, intensified their campaign demanding that the Mensheviks and SRs break with the capitalists and take the power into their own hands. This apparent paradox in reality represented the only way in which the Bolsheviks could gain the ear of the masses. Lenin even put to the Soviet leaders that, if they took power, the Bolsheviks would guarantee that the struggle for power would be confined to the peaceful struggle to win a majority in the Soviets. Trotsky explains:
After all the experiences of the Coalition, it might have seemed that there could be only one way out, viz., to break with the Cadets and to form a purely Soviet Government. The correlation of forces inside the Soviets at the time was such that a Soviet Government would have meant, from a party point of view, the concentration of power in the hands of the SRs and Mensheviks. We were deliberately aiming at such a result, since the constant re-elections to the Soviets provided the necessary machinery for securing a sufficiently faithful reflection of the growing radicalisation of the masses of the workers and soldiers. We foresaw that after the break of the Coalition with the bourgeoisie the radical tendencies would necessarily gain the upper hand on the Soviets. In such conditions the struggle of the proletariat for power would naturally shift to the floor of the Soviet organisations, and would proceed in a painless fashion.
The pressure for decisive action was building up among the workers and soldiers of Petrograd. Again the Bolsheviks called an armed demonstration to put pressure on the Soviet leaders. Trotsky explains the motives of the Bolsheviks:
There was still some hope that a demonstration of revolutionary masses might break down the obstinate doctrinairism of the Coalitionists and compel them to realise at last that they could only maintain themselves in power if they completely broke with the bourgeois. Contrary to what was said and written at the time in the bourgeois press, there was no intention whatever in our party of seizing the reins of power by means of an armed rising. It was only a revolutionary demonstration which broke out spontaneously, though guided by us politically. (L. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, in The Essential Trotsky, pp. 35-36 and p. 37.)
The mood of the soldiers was particularly explosive. The First Machine Gun Regiment, stationed in the working-class Vyborg district, was agitated by the news that they would have to send 500 machine gun crews to the front. The regiment, where the influence of the Bolsheviks was strong, drew their own conclusion: it was necessary to overthrow the Provisional Government. Sections of the Bolsheviks – especially the Military Organisation – sympathised with this aim. There is a tendency among military men to overestimate the independent power of the gun. But the Bolshevik Central Committee firmly opposed any attempt to seize power in Petrograd at this stage. The provinces were not yet ready and, under such circumstances, the seizure of the capital would be a putsch.
One wrong move on our part can wreck everything. If we were now able to seize power, it is naïve to think that we would be able to hold it… Even in the Soviets of both capitals, not to speak now of the others, we are an insignificant minority… This is a basic fact, and it determines the behaviour of our Party… Events should not be anticipated. Time is on our side. (A. Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, pp. 121-22.)
But the Bolsheviks could not prevent the explosion that was being prepared. On 3 July, the soldiers, sailors and workers, incensed at the moves of the government to send them as cannon fodder to the front, poured out onto the streets of the capital. It was a spontaneous uprising involving a large number of people moving around the streets with no clear aim or strategy. The reformist leaders looked on aghast as an immense crowd of workers and sailors surrounded the Tauride Palace where the Central Executive was meeting. The initiative for the demonstration came from below, from the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, exasperated by the shilly-shallying of the Soviet leaders, whose indignation had been raised to boiling point by the announcement of the July offensive. Far from aiming to seize power, the Bolsheviks did their best to restrain the masses, fearing quite rightly that Petrograd would be isolated from the rest of Russia.
Lunacharsky wrote to his wife the next day: “The movement developed spontaneously. Black Hundreds, hooligans, provocateurs, anarchists, and desperate people introduced a large amount of chaos and absurdity into the demonstration.” (Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 424.) Anarchist and Black Hundred elements attempted to incite the demonstrators to attacking the building and arresting the Soviet leaders, and an actual attempt was made to arrest the SR leader Chernov. This enabled the reactionary press later to describe the July demonstration as a pogrom and simultaneously an attempted putsch organised by the Bolsheviks against the revolution and the Soviet majority. None of this bears the slightest relation to the truth. The Central Committee met at 4 p.m. on 3 July and decided to do everything possible to restrain the movement, which threatened to turn into a full-blown uprising. Delegates were hastily dispatched to the factories and barracks to prevent the masses from coming out onto the streets, but it was already too late. The movement had started and nothing could stop it.
Late that night the Central Committee, together with the Petrograd Committee and the Military Organisation, taking into account the mood of the masses, decided to take part in the demonstration in order to give it an organised and peaceful character. Lenin was away on holiday, in an attempt to recover his strength after the exhaustion of the last few months. But being informed of the sudden turn of events, hurried back to the capital, where he found a chaotic and potentially dangerous state of affairs. On 4 July, a vast number of people were involved in the demonstrations. More than half a million thronged the streets of Petrograd with no order, aim, or leadership. The small number of anarchists in Petrograd were delighted: ‘The streets will organise us!’ was the typical comment. But things were not so simple, as events showed.
By 4 July, the demonstration had assumed a huge and threatening character. By now, the Bolsheviks were straining might and main to keep things within limits.
“We Bolsheviks,” recalls Trotsky, “met every new detachment of demonstrators, either in the street or in the Palace, with harangues, calling on them to be calm, and assuring them that with the masses in their present mood the compromisemongers would be unable to form a new coalition ministry. The men of Kronstadt were particularly determined, and it was only with difficulty that we could keep them within the bounds of a bare demonstration.”
Trotsky was sent to rescue the SR leader Chernov who had been ‘arrested’ by the Kronstadt sailors. In the course of his ‘arrest’, one of the workers angrily shook his fist in Chernov’s face and shouted at him: “Take the power, you son of a bitch, when it’s handed to you!” In a famous incident, Trotsky recalls the mood of sullen suspicion that emanated from all sides as he made his way through the ranks of the rebellious sailors. They were waiting for Trotsky to give them the order to take power, but instead he asked them to release their prisoner. The sailors shouted angrily at Trotsky, who felt that the slightest wrong word or action would have ended in his being set on and killed. At seven o’clock in the evening, a crowd of armed and angry workers from the Putilov plant burst in on a meeting of the terrified Soviet leaders. A worker in blue overalls jumped onto the platform and, waving his rifle in the air, shouted at the deputies:
Comrades! How long must we workers put up with treachery? You’re all here debating and making deals with the bourgeoisie and the landlords…
You’re busy betraying the working class. Well, just understand that the working class won’t put up with it! There are 30,000 of us all told here from Putilov. We’re going to have our way. All power to the Soviets! We have a firm grip on our rifles! Your Kerenskys and Tseretelis are not going to fool us! (Ibid., pp. 38-39 and p. 431.)
The Soviet leaders were compelled to negotiate to gain time while Kerensky brought in ‘reliable’ troops from the front. But the arrival of troops from the front was the signal for a counter-revolutionary offensive. The bourgeois took revenge for the fright it had suffered. The counter-attack was led by the Soviet leaders, who recovered their nerve the moment the Volhynian regiment arrived. They no longer had any reason to negotiate with the alleged perpetrators of an ‘armed rebellion’. The Bolsheviks were declared a ‘counter-revolutionary party’. Cossacks and police fired on the demonstrators from the rooftops, causing panic. Later, when the loyal troops had arrived and disarmed the rebel units, the middle class gave vent to their fury. Workers were beaten up by respectable ladies and gentlemen on the Nevsky Prospekt. There was a wave of raids, arrests, beatings, and even murders. On the night of 4-5 July, the Justice Minister P.N. Pereverzev gave the press papers that purported to show that Lenin was a German agent. On the night of 5 July, the offices of Pravda were wrecked by government forces. The Bolshevik papers were suppressed. Rebel units were sent to the front to be massacred. Suddenly, the pendulum was swinging violently to the right.
After the July Events
The demonstration of 2 and 3 July revealed many things. It showed that the reformist leaders had decisively lost their base in Petrograd. But it also showed, as the Bolsheviks had warned, that Petrograd was not Russia, that the Mensheviks and SRs still had huge reserves of support in the workers and peasants of the provinces. Even in Petrograd, the mood in the barracks was not uniform. Although a majority of the soldiers and still more of the sailors were with the Bolsheviks at this time, some units remained passive or were undecided. However, not a single unit of the Petrograd garrison was prepared to fight to defend the Provisional Government or even the Soviet leaders.
The workers and soldiers did not get off scot-free. Mistakes are always paid for. Some hundreds were killed. But if the Bolsheviks had not placed themselves at the head of the demonstration in order to give it an organised and peaceful character, there would undoubtedly have been a bloodbath. Moreover, the party’s influence over the most advanced workers would have been destroyed. At times it is necessary to go with the workers even when they are mistaken, in order that they should learn by experience and draw the conclusions. The experience of the July Days was a painful one, but the workers learned to trust the judgement of the Bolsheviks who had warned them in advance of what would happen, but then participated shoulder to shoulder with them.
On 2 July, as a result of the split on the Ukrainian question, three Cadet ministers had resigned from the government, followed later by Pereverzev and, on the 7th, by the Prime Minister, Prince Lvov. The remaining cabinet ministers appointed Kerensky and entrusted him with forming a new government – the Second Coalition. The attack on the left greatly strengthened the counter-revolutionaries who now felt that they had the initiative. After the suppression of the movement in Petrograd, the bourgeois felt that the time had come to ‘restore order’. The Cadets demanded that the Socialist ministers break their links with the Soviets. The left wing, in the person of the Bolsheviks, was to be crushed. Orlando Figes gives a flavour of the mood of anti-Bolshevik hysteria that existed at this time:
By the morning of the 5th, the capital was seized with anti-Bolshevik hysteria. The right-wing tabloids bayed for Bolshevik blood, instantly blaming the ‘German agents’ for the reverses at the Front. It seemed self-evident that the Bolsheviks had planned their uprising to coincide with the German advance. General Polovtsov, who was responsible for the repressions as the head of the Petrograd Military District, later acknowledged that the Bolshevik-baiting contained “a strong anti-Semitic tendency”; but in the usual way that Russians of his class justified pogroms he put it down “to the Jews themselves because among the Bolshevik leaders their percentage was not far from a hundred. It was beginning to annoy the soldiers to see that Jews ruled everything, and the remarks I heard in the barracks plainly showed what the soldiers thought about it”. (Ibid., p. 433.)
The day after the demonstrations, the press waged a hysterical campaign about Lenin and the ‘German agents’, while the SRs and Mensheviks, who knew that this was a pack of lies, maintained a cowardly silence. But their complicity with the counter-revolution did not end there. The Mensheviks and SRs called on Lenin and the other leaders to “hand themselves over to justice”. That was an open invitation to place their necks in the hangman’s noose. The reactionaries were now baying for blood.
On 6 July, the government issued an order for the arrest of Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. Some writers (among the most recent, Orlando Figes) try to accuse Lenin of personal cowardice. That is nonsense. The record shows that Lenin had decided to give himself up, and had to be talked out of it by other party leaders. The day after the order of arrest was issued, following a raid on his sister’s apartment, Lenin wrote a note, addressed to the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet, asking it to open an investigation and offering to give himself up to the authorities, on condition that the Soviet Executive sanctioned his arrest:
Only just now, at 3.15 p.m., 7 July, I learned that a search was made at my flat last night, despite the protests of my wife, by armed men who produced no warrant. I register my protest against this and ask the Bureau of the CEC to investigate this flagrant breach of the law.
At the same time I consider it my duty to confirm officially and in writing what, I am sure, not a single member of the CEC can doubt, namely that, in the event of the government ordering my arrest and this order being endorsed by the CEC, I shall present myself for arrest at the place indicated to me by the CEC.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (N. Lenin), Member of the CEC. (LCW, To the Bureau of the Central Executive Committee, vol. 43, p. 636.)
In her memoirs of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls that:
He [Lenin] argued the necessity of making his appearance in court. Maria Ilyichna [Lenin’s sister] warmly protested against it. “Grigory [Zinoviev] and I have decided to appear – go and tell Kamenev,” Ilyich said to me. Kamenev was staying in another flat not far away. I got up hastily. “Let’s say good-bye,” Ilyich checked me. “We may not see each other again”. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 366.)
Members of the CC tried to persuade Lenin that this course of action was out of the question. What finally made up Lenin’s mind was the decision of the Soviet Executive to cancel its promised inquiry into the July events. When Ordzhonikidze and Nogin were sent to the Tauride Palace carrying Lenin’s message and instructions to negotiate the terms of his imprisonment, the Soviet’s representative refused to give any assurances, but promised to ‘do what they could’. According to Ordzhonikidze, even the moderate Nogin was “uneasy about Lenin’s fate were he to turn himself in”. It was now quite clear that the Soviet was excluded from all influence over the government and that the judiciary, still dominated by tsarist elements, would act as the obedient servant of the counter-revolution. In a letter written for publication, Lenin explained:
We have changed our plan to submit to the government because… it is clear that the case regarding the espionage of Lenin and others has been intentionally constructed by the forces of counter-revolution… At this time there can be no guarantee of a fair trial. The Central Executive Committee… formed a commission to look into the espionage charges and under pressure from the counter-revolution this commission has been dissolved… To turn ourselves in to the authorities now would be to put ourselves into the hands of the Milyukovs, Aleksinskys, Pereverzevs – that is, into the hands of dyed-in-the-wool counter-revolutionaries for whom the charges against us are nothing more than an episode in the civil war. (A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 34 in both quotes.)
The party leaders finally persuaded Lenin to go into hiding. That was undoubtedly the correct line of action. Lenin was more use to the revolution alive than dead or locked up. It is true that a section of the party was in favour of Lenin going on trial, with the idea of defending himself from the accused’s bench, as Trotsky had done in 1906. But such an idea would have been madness. Later, the majority of the Sixth Party Congress, which met in Petrograd at the end of July, considered the question correctly and concluded that Lenin would never have reached the courtroom, but would have fallen to some assassin’s bullet, ‘shot while trying to escape’. Even if that were only a possibility, the party had no right to risk the life of Lenin on a gambler’s throw.
There can be no doubt that Lenin’s life was in danger at this moment in time. The counter-revolution was rampant. In the Petrograd Soviet, a Menshevik deputy declared: “Citizens who look like workers or who are suspected of being Bolsheviks are in constant danger of being beaten.” Another added that “quite intelligent people are conducting ultra–anti-Semitic agitation”. (Ibid., p. 43.) Several Bolshevik Party offices were raided and smashed. This happened to the print shop of Trud, which printed a lot of material for the unions, as well as Bolshevik literature. Ivan Voinov, a 23-year old Bolshevik who helped out in the circulation department of Pravda, was arrested while distributing Listok Pravdy (Pravda Pamphlet), one of the many names under which the party paper appeared to get round the ban. While being ‘interrogated’, the prisoner was struck on the head with a sabre, killing him instantly. Given the general atmosphere of hysteria and the accusations directed personally against Lenin as a German agent, it would have been the height of irresponsibility to entrust him to the tender mercies of the ‘Law’ in a period of counter-revolution.
Two years later, during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin – a movement which was strikingly similar to the July Days – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht failed to take the necessary precautions and were arrested by counter-revolutionary officers. They did not believe that they would be murdered in cold blood, but that is just what happened. The murder of the two most outstanding leaders of the German working class had a disastrous effect on the whole course of the German Revolution and the history of the world. Yes, they showed personal bravery. But what a terrible price was paid for that mistaken action! If they had gone underground, as Lenin did, the future of the German Revolution would have been in safe hands. Instead, it suffered an abortion. Not just the German working class, but the whole world paid for this catastrophe, with the rise of Hitler and all the subsequent horrors of fascism and war. Such considerations should make one pause for thought before making inane comments about ‘personal bravery’, and all the rest of it.
The Menshevik and SR leaders, to whom Lenin had looked for guarantees concerning his arrest, played a contemptible role. Dan proposed a crudely worded resolution which was supported by the majority of the reformist parties in the Soviet, accusing the Bolsheviks of crimes against the people and the revolution, and branding Lenin’s evasion of arrest as ‘intolerable’. In the same way, the German right-wing Social Democratic leaders Noske and Scheidemann in 1919 acted as accomplices to the general staff and the Freikorps in the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. They demanded that the Bolsheviks open a discussion on Lenin’s conduct, and provided for the suspension of membership of the Soviet Executive of all persons under investigation. Nogin protested:
You are being asked to adopt a resolution regarding the Bolsheviks before they have been tried. You are asked to place outside the law the leaders of the fraction that prepared the revolution with you. (Ibid., p. 36.)
But the Soviet right wing was not interested in Nogin’s complaints. Dan’s resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority. From the floor the attacks on the Bolsheviks were even more hysterical.
Now that the appetite of the counter-revolutionaries had been whetted, they vented their fury against the workers’ movement in general, not caring to distinguish between left and right. At a meeting of the Provisional Committee of the Duma held on 5 July, right-wing Duma deputies like A.M. Maslenikov and Vladimir Purishkevich (best known for his part in the assassination of Rasputin) raged against the moderate Soviet leaders, who were described as “dreamers”, “lunatics passing themselves off as pacifists”, “petty careerists”, and “a group of fanatics, transients [that is, Jews], and traitors”. Maslenikov demanded that power be restored to the Duma and that the government be made responsible to it alone. This was a demand for the liquidation of dual power. The Soviets should play no role. Purishkevich went further, blurting out the real intentions of the counter-revolutionaries:
If a thousand, two thousand, perhaps five thousand scoundrels at the front and several dozen in the rear had been done away with, we would not have suffered such an unprecedented disgrace. (Ibid., p. 45.)
And he demanded the reintroduction of the death penalty, not only at the front, but in the rear also. This demand grew like a deafening crescendo in the weeks following the July defeat. Its meaning was clear. The bourgeoisie was striving to re-establish ‘order’ – that is, its control over the society and the state, which, as Lenin explained, in the last analysis, is armed bodies of men. The re-establishment of discipline in the army by the most brutal means, including the death penalty, was the prior condition for liquidating the dual power and reconstituting the old state. That could only mean dictatorship, as subsequent events proved.
The July defeat altered the class correlation of forces. With every step backwards taken by the revolution, the counter-revolution grew bolder. On the other hand, the mood of the workers and soldiers in the capital was depressed. They had learned a harsh lesson. The provinces were against them. A sense of isolation and impotence gripped the capital. The workers lowered their heads and waited for the next blow. In the midst of this carnival of reaction, when the Bolsheviks were being hounded and persecuted on all sides, one voice rang out bold and clear – the voice of Leon Trotsky, who, in an open letter to the Provisional Government, dated 10 (23) July, 1917, wrote:
I have learned that in connection with the events of 16-17 July, a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Lenin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, but not for me. I should like, therefore, to call your attention to the following:
1. I agree with the main thesis of Lenin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, and have advocated it in the journal Vperyod and in my public speeches.
2. My attitude toward the events of 16-17 July was the same as theirs.
(a) Kamenev, Zinoviev, and I first learned of the proposed plans of the Machine Gun and other regiments at the joint meeting of the Bureaus (Executive Committees) on 16 July. We took immediate steps to stop the soldiers from coming out. Zinoviev and Kamenev put themselves in touch with the Bolsheviks, and I with the ‘inter-ward’ organisation (i.e., Mezhraiontsy) to which I belong.
(b) When however, notwithstanding our efforts, the demonstration did take place, my comrade Bolsheviks and I made numerous speeches in front of the Tauride Palace, in which we came out in favour of the main slogan of the crowd: “All power to the Soviets”, but we, at the same time, called on those demonstrating, both the soldiers and civilians, to return to their homes and barracks in a peaceful and orderly manner.
(c) At a conference which took place at the Tauride Palace late in the night of 16-17 July between some Bolsheviks and ward organisations, I supported the motion of Kamenev that everything should be done to prevent a recurrence of the demonstration on 17 July. When, however, it was learned from the agitators, who arrived from the different wards, that the regiments and factory workers had already decided to come out, and that it was impossible to hold back the crowd until the government crisis was over, all those present agreed that the best thing to do was to direct the demonstration along peaceful lines and to ask the masses to leave their guns at home.
(d) In the course of the day of 17 July, which I spent in the Tauride Palace, I and the Bolshevik comrades more than once urged this course on the crowd.
3. The fact that I am not connected with Pravda and am not a member of the Bolshevik Party is not due to political differences, but to certain circumstances in our party history which have now lost all significance.
4. The attempt of the newspapers to convey the impression that I have ‘nothing to do’ with the Bolsheviks has about as much truth in it as the report that I have asked the authorities to protect me from the ‘violence of the mob’, of the hundreds of other false rumours of that same press.
5. From all that I have said, it is clear that you cannot logically exclude me from the warrant of arrest which you have made out for Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. There can also be no doubt in your minds that I am just as uncompromising a political opponent as the above-named comrades. Leaving me out merely emphasises the counter-revolutionary high-handedness that lies behind the attack on Lenin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. (Reprinted in The Age of Permanent Revolution, pp. 98-99, my emphasis.)
The authorities obliged, and Trotsky was imprisoned in the Kresty Fortress.
Lenin Changes His Mind
Pondering the significance of these events from his hiding place in the little village of Razliv on the Gulf of Finland, some 20 miles to the north-west of the capital, Lenin was in a sombre frame of mind. The events of July and its aftermath made a strong impression on him. To those who imagine that the Russian Revolution of 1917 followed an automatic course to victory under the all-seeing leadership of a man who never once doubted its success, it would be a profitable exercise to examine the evolution of his thought at this time. It is not generally realised, but initially Lenin was inclined to overestimate the advance of the counter-revolution and draw pessimistic conclusions. Basing himself on the memoirs of Shotman and Zinoviev, Alexander Rabinowitch, in his interesting book on the Bolshevik Revolution, writes:
Shotman remembered that for a time Lenin exaggerated the scope and impact of the reaction and was pessimistic about the short-term prospects for revolution in Russia. There was no use talking further about a Constituent Assembly, Lenin felt, because the ‘victor’ would not convene it; the party ought therefore to marshal what strength it had left and go underground “seriously and for a long time”. The dismal reports that Shotman initially passed to Lenin in Razliv reinforced these convictions; it was several weeks before the news began to improve.
Lenin’s pessimism in the wake of the July Days is confirmed by Zinoviev. Writing in the late twenties, he recalled that at the time Lenin assumed that a longer and deeper period of reaction lay ahead than actually turned out to be the case. (A. Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 37.)
Maria Sulimova, a Bolshevik staff worker with whom Lenin stayed on 6 July, remarks that when she related the latest news to Lenin, the latter responded gloomily: “You, comrade Sulimova, they might arrest. But me, they will hang.” That this was playing on his mind was shown by a note he sent to Kamenev: “Entre nous [between you and me]: if they do me in, I ask you to publish my notebook, ‘Marxism on the State’.” (LCW, Note to L.B. Kamenev, vol. 36, p. 454.)
The notebook referred to here is Lenin’s celebrated State and Revolution, one of the most important and influential works of Marxist theory, which he wrote at this time. Lenin kept in close contact with the capital by letter, wrote many articles and proclamations, and scoured the papers for news. But in a situation that was changing rapidly, by the day, sometimes by the hour, this was not sufficient to keep his hand on the pulse of the movement. The deep impression made by the July events induced him to advocate a change of tactics which led to yet another fierce controversy in the party.
On the basis of the July Days, Lenin had drawn the conclusion that a peaceful outcome was now impossible, that civil war was inevitable, and that it was necessary for the party to place insurrection on the order of the day immediately. “All hopes for a peaceful development of the Russian Revolution have vanished for good,” he wrote. Lenin concluded that the July defeat had liquidated the regime of dual power. The Soviets, under the leadership of the right wing, had, in effect, gone over to the side of the counter-revolution. It was therefore ruled out that they could be transformed and used to take power. That meant that the earlier perspective of a peaceful transformation was no longer possible. Therefore, he advocated abandoning the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’. Instead, the party should concentrate all its efforts on preparing an insurrection, basing itself on the factory committees:
The slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ was a slogan for peaceful development of the revolution which was possible in April, May, June, and up to 5-9 July, i.e., up to the time when actual power passed into the hands of the military dictatorship. This slogan is no longer correct, for it does not take into account that power has changed hands and that the revolution has in fact been completely betrayed by the SRs and Mensheviks. Reckless actions, revolts, partial resistance, or hopeless hit-and-run attempts to oppose reaction will not help. (LCW, The Political Situation, vol. 25, pp. 177-78.)
That appraisal turned out to have been premature, and Lenin subsequently revised it. But it was understandable at the time. What was characteristic of Lenin was to be thinking of the next stage, and predicting the inevitability of an insurrection precisely at a time when the counter-revolution appeared to have triumphed all along the line. Lenin saw that the tide of counter-revolution would eventually ebb, and that the Bolsheviks must set themselves the goal of taking power. That was shown to be correct. But in another sense, Lenin was too pessimistic. The victory of the right wing in the Soviets was not as decisive as he had thought. On the contrary, the growing polarisation and radicalisation of society would inevitably express itself in the Soviets, as the main mass organisations of the working class. Of course, there is nothing magical about the Soviets as such. True, they are particularly suited to expressing the aspirations and moods of the masses because of their extremely democratic and flexible form. But in a revolution, where the moods of the masses change with lightning speed, even such organisations as these lag behind, reflecting the situation of yesterday, not today. As early as April, Lenin warned against a fetishism of soviets. At the April Conference, he said: “The Soviets are important to us not as a form; to us it is important what classes they represent.” It was not a question of participating in ‘soviet parliamentarism’, of manoeuvring with the tops, but of finding a way to the workers that were looking to the Soviets.
After July, the class balance of forces had been dramatically modified. The reformist leaders understood nothing. They resembled a man sawing off the branch upon which he was sitting. With every blow struck against the Bolsheviks, the confidence and aggressiveness of the right increased. Inevitably, this was directed not only against the Bolsheviks but against the Soviets themselves. Not only did the Mensheviks and SRs refuse to take power, but by their actions, the Soviet leaders were encouraging the counter-revolution, and, in Lenin’s opinion, making future violence and civil war inevitable. In that sense, these were counter-revolutionary soviets, inasmuch as the right-wing reformist leadership, leaning on the Soviets, was actively assisting the bourgeoisie to re-establish its control of the state.
Later, Lenin wrote:
All the experience of both revolutions, that of 1905 and that of 1917, and all the decisions of the Bolshevik Party, all its political declarations for many years, may be reduced to the concept that the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is a reality only as an organ of insurrection, as an organ of revolutionary power. Apart from this, the Soviets are a meaningless plaything that can only produce apathy, indifference and disillusion among the masses, who are legitimately disgusted at the endless repetition of resolutions and protests. (LCW, Theses for a Report at the 8 October Conference of the Petrograd Organisation, vol. 26, p. 143.)
Despite everything, the Bolsheviks recovered fairly quickly from the defeat of July. The victory of the counter-revolution proved to be far shallower and more ephemeral than Lenin had assumed. Surprisingly few left the party after July, despite the fact that the Bolsheviks had a rough time even in some of the factories where backward workers were influenced by the barrage of anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Within a few weeks, the party was beginning to recover its influence and grow. The reasons were rooted in the objective situation. Despite its temporary success, the Provisional Government’s policies were as unpopular as ever. The news from the front went from bad to worse. Kerensky’s ‘patriotic’ demagogy cut no ice with the troops who wanted only to demobilise and go home. The attempts to restore discipline under such circumstances only made things worse. The soldiers also observed with growing alarm the re-emergence of counter-revolutionary elements in the officer corps. The tsarist officers had kept their heads down since February, but now started to regroup and assert themselves with ever greater confidence.
Against Lenin’s prognosis, the Soviets began to be more receptive to Bolshevik propaganda. This despite the fact that, up to August, the only two soviets in Petrograd where the Bolsheviks enjoyed strong influence were Kolpinsky and the workers’ stronghold of the Vyborg district. All the other local Soviets in the capital supported the Mensheviks and SRs. Some of these took a belligerently anti-Bolshevik attitude after the July Days, passing resolutions condemning the organisers of the demonstration. But now the mood was beginning to change. The rank-and-file Menshevik and SR workers were becoming ever more critical of their leaders.
A contradictory process was unfolding: the reformist leaders in the All-Russian Executive Committee were pledging their unconditional support for Kerensky, while in the district soviets, suspicion towards the government was growing by the hour. This was shown by the steady rise of the left current represented by the Menshevik Internationalists (Martov), the Inter-District Committee (the Mezhraiontsy) and the Bolsheviks. By midsummer, in addition to Vyborg and Kolpinsky, Bolshevik resolutions were being passed in the Vasilevsky Island, Kolomensky, and the First City District. Although formally they were still Mensheviks and SRs, the workers were more and more inclined to listen to the ideas of the only people who were prepared to speak what was on their minds – the Bolsheviks. Alexander Rabinowitch points out:
Nonetheless, with the possible exception of the Vyborg District Soviet, it appears that none of these soviets were effectively controlled by the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks and SRs, more accurately their Menshevik-Internationalist and Left SR offshoots, retained influence in most district soviets until the late fall of 1917. (A. Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 77.)
Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party
The events of 1917 were a defining moment for the revolutionary movement in Russia. Here, at last, all theories, programmes, and individuals were put to the decisive test – the test of practice. Many did not survive the test. Even Lenin’s closest collaborators succumbed to the pressures of the moment and failed to live up to their historic responsibilities. This was not entirely due to their personal characteristics, although these play a role, and not an unimportant one. The idea that history can be reduced to the blind play of economic forces in which men and women are mere puppets of a predetermined fate, like the characters in a Greek tragedy, has nothing in common with Marxism. Marx and Engels never denied the role of the individual in history. They merely explained that human beings are not entirely free agents, but are conditioned by the existing social reality, the constellation of class forces, the existing consciousness of the masses, the political trends, the prejudices, the illusions – all play a determining role, but, in the last analysis (and only in the last analysis) are themselves determined by the patterns of development of the means of production. Ultimately, the economic base is decisive, but the relationship between ‘base’ (productive forces) and ‘superstructure’ (state, politics, religion, philosophy, morality, etc.) is not direct and mechanical, but indirect and dialectical. There is plenty of scope for the actions of individuals to make a difference – even a decisive difference to the course of history, as the Russian Revolution undoubtedly proves.
Marx once observed that theory becomes a material force when it grips the minds of the masses. A correct theory is one that anticipates more or less accurately the main course of events. Armed with such a theory, it should be possible to work out a perspective which makes clear in advance the general line of development even before the facts to support it are available to us. This should enable a revolutionary tendency to orient its forces correctly, and to anticipate the real tendencies before they come into existence. Anyone who studies the polemics in the Russian Social Democracy in the decade or so before 1917 cannot fail to be struck by the superiority of one theory which, with astonishing accuracy, predicted what really occurred in 1917 – Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. By contrast, the theory of the ‘bourgeois-democratic stage’ advanced by the Mensheviks immediately revealed its counter-revolutionary nature after February, when it was used to justify the Mensheviks’ and SRs’ support for the bourgeois Provisional Government, while Lenin’s formulation of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ served as an excuse for Kamenev and Stalin to capitulate to the Mensheviks and abandon the socialist revolution for bourgeois democracy.
In the course of 1917, the differences that had separated Lenin from Trotsky vanished, as if they had never existed. There grew up between the two men a real sense of solidarity and a closeness that was to last until Lenin’s death. At the beginning of October, in a document addressed to a Conference of Bolsheviks of Petrograd which was considering the list of candidates for the Constituent Assembly, Lenin supported Trotsky’s inclusion in the list, writing that:
No one would contest the candidature of, say, Trotsky, for, first, upon his arrival, Trotsky at once took up an internationalist stand; second, he worked among the Mezhraiontsy for a merger [with the Bolsheviks]; third, in the difficult July Days he proved himself equal to the task and a loyal supporter of the party of the revolutionary proletariat. (LCW, From the Theses for a Report at the 8 October Conference of the St. Petersburg Organisation, vol. 41, p. 447.)
In his memoirs, Raskolnikov wrote:
Trotsky’s attitude to Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin) was one of enormous esteem. He placed him higher than any contemporary he had met with, either in Russia or abroad. In the tone in which Trotsky spoke of Lenin you felt the devotion of a disciple. In those times Lenin had behind him 30 years’ service to the proletariat, and Trotsky 20. The echoes of their disagreements during the pre-war period were completely gone. No difference existed between the tactical line of Lenin and Trotsky. Their rapprochement, already noticeable during the war, was completely and unquestionably determined, from the moment of the return of Lyev Davidovich (Trotsky) to Russia. After his very first speeches all of us old Leninists felt that he was ours. (Quoted in L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 814.)
As soon as he had officially joined the party, at the Sixth Congress, Trotsky was elected to the Central Committee. Trotsky’s enormous popularity with the Bolshevik workers, and his rapid advance, was resented by the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who showed their irritation by opposing Lenin’s proposal to include him on the editorial board of Pravda – a decision which was reversed in September when he was elected to the editorial board. As Lenin states in the document quoted above (which, incidentally, was not published in the USSR until 1962), Trotsky did not enter the Bolshevik Party alone, but with an important group, the Mezhrayntsi, or Inter-District Group. In point of fact, in agreement with Lenin, he delayed joining the Bolshevik Party in order to win over this group, which finally joined the Bolsheviks after the July Days. At the Sixth Congress, where the Mezhraiontsy joined the Bolshevik Party, and Trotsky was elected to the Central Committee, his was one of the four names (with Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev) which was announced as having polled the highest number of votes (131 out of 134).
The only reason why Trotsky delayed formally joining the Bolsheviks after his return was that, with Lenin’s full agreement, he was working to win over the Mezhraiontsy group. The ‘Mezhdurayonny komitet’, or ‘Mezhraionka’ as it was popularly known, means the ‘Inter-District Committee’. This was not a new organisation, as we have already seen. It was formed in 1913, and kept up its revolutionary activity throughout the war. Its membership was made up mainly of revolutionaries who, for different reasons, did not feel inclined to join Lenin’s party. There were left Menshevik Internationalists, Vperyodists, Bolshevik Conciliators, supporters of Trotsky, and individual leftists, many of them very talented people who later played an important part in the revolution and occupied leading positions in the Soviet government. Such men were Lunacharsky, the first People’s Commissar for Education and Culture; Adolf Joffe, the Soviet diplomat who later committed suicide in protest at Stalin’s usurpation of power; Volodarsky and Uritsky, two important Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, who are not better known because they were assassinated early on by Left SR terrorists; Ryazanov, the well-known writer; Pokrovsky, the historian; Manuilsky, Yurenev, and many others. In February 1917 they were a significant force with 4,000 members in Petrograd. Their addition to the party was an important development, as Lenin later acknowledged.
From the moment of Trotsky’s return in May, as soon as he saw the fundamental identity of views, Lenin saw the possibility of a partnership that would bear important fruit. The two men held discussions, in which it was decided that Trotsky should delay joining the Bolsheviks until he had first won over the Mezhraiontsy. This was no easy task, in view of all the past frictions and suspicions. Later, in his evidence before the Dewey Commission, Trotsky explained the circumstances:
Trotsky: I was working together with the Bolshevik Party. There was a group in Petrograd which was the same, programmatically, as the Bolshevik Party, but organisationally independent. I consulted Lenin about whether it would be good that I enter the Bolshevik Party immediately, or whether it would be better that I enter with this good workers’ organisation which had three or four revolutionary workers.
Goldman: Three or four?
Trotsky: Three or four thousand revolutionary workers. We agreed that it would be better to prepare for a merger of the two organisations at the Communist Party Congress. Formally, I remained in that organisation and not in the Bolshevik Party, until August, 1917. But the activity was absolutely identical. This was done only to prepare for a merger on a larger scale. (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p. 21.)
On 10 May, as if to underline the importance he attached to this question, Lenin himself attended a meeting of the Mezhraiontsy and took the extraordinary step of offering them a seat on the editorial board of Pravda and on the organisation committee of the forthcoming party congress. (See E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 99.) In connection with this, he wrote:
In compliance with the decision of the All-Russia Conference, the Central Committee of our Party, recognising the extreme desirability of union with the Inter-District Organisation, advanced the following proposals (they were first made to the Inter-District Organisation only in the name of comrade Lenin and a few other members of the Central Committee, but were subsequently approved by the majority of the members of the Central Committee):
“Unity is desirable immediately.
“The Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party will be asked to include a representative of the Inter-District Organisation on the staff of each of the two papers (the present Pravda, which is to be converted into an All-Russia popular newspaper, and the Central Organ to be established in the near future).
“The Central Committee will be asked to set up a special Organising Committee to summon a Party Congress (in six weeks’ time). The Inter-District Conference will be entitled to appoint two delegates to this committee. If the Mensheviks, adherents of Martov, break with the ‘defencists’, it would be desirable and essential to include their delegates on the above-mentioned committee.
“Free discussion of controversial issues shall be ensured by the publication of discussion leaflets by Priboi Publishers and by free discussion in the journal Prosveshcheniye (Kommunist), publication of which is being resumed”. (LCW, The Question of the Internationalists, 31 (18) May, 1917, vol. 24, pp. 431-32.)
Lenin’s anxiety to win over the Mezhraiontsy was not at all accidental. The experience of the past few weeks since the February overturn had convinced him of the need for a radical renewal of the Bolshevik Party from top to bottom. He needed allies on the left who would act as a counterbalance to the conservatism of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’. His main hope lay in the rank-and-file Bolshevik workers and, especially, the influx of fresh new elements from the youth, the factories, and the barracks. But that was insufficient. He needed experienced people, theoreticians, propagandists and writers who would play a role in shaking up the leadership, fighting routine, and imprinting a clearly revolutionary line on the party’s activity.
The Mezhraiontsy responded to Lenin’s initial overtures with a certain reserve. Not until the summer was the ground sufficiently prepared for the Mezhraiontsy to join the Bolsheviks, which they finally did at the Sixth Congress. However, even before they formally merged, the two organisations worked closely together. On the All-Russian Congress of Soviets held in the beginning of June, which was solidly dominated by the Mensheviks and SRs, the celebrated English historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr, writes:
Trotsky and Lunacharsky were among the ten delegates of the ‘united social democrats’ who solidly supported the Bolsheviks throughout the three weeks of the congress. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 100.)
In order to speed up the accession of the Mezhraiontsy to the Bolshevik Party, which was opposed by some of the Mezhraiontsy leadership, Trotsky wrote in Pravda the following statement:
There are in my opinion at the present time [i.e., July] no differences either in principle or in tactics between the Inter-District and the Bolshevik organisation. Accordingly there are no motives which justify the separate existence of these organisations. (Quoted in L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 811.)
Following in the time-honoured tradition of Stalinist falsification, the Istoriya KPSS dishonestly describes it as a group which “vacillated between Menshevism and Bolshevism” but adds, without explanation, that “in the summer of 1917, it entered the ranks of the Bolshevik Party”. (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, pp. 657-58, note.) Two years after the revolution, Lenin, wrote that in 1917 “Bolshevism drew to itself all the best elements in the currents of socialist thought that were closest to it”. To whom do these lines refer? The only other possibility would be the Left Menshevik group of Larin, which applied to join the Bolsheviks about the same time as the Mezhraiontsy. But Lenin’s attitude to this group was well known to be highly critical. In the same speech to the 8 October Conference, Lenin indignantly rejected the proposal to elect Larin as a Bolshevik candidate to the Constituent Assembly, describing it as “especially scandalous”. (LCW, From the Thesis for a Report at the 8 October Conference of the St. Petersburg Organisation, vol. 41, p. 447.)
This reference can only be to Trotsky and the Mezhraiontsy. The fact that no real political differences existed between the Bolsheviks and the Mezhraiontsy was shown by the fact that, when they joined the party, it was decided that the period of their membership of the Inter-District Committee should be regarded for purposes of seniority as equivalent to the same period spent in the Bolshevik Party. This indicated that the political line of the two organisations had been essentially the same, a point that was underlined in a note to the Collected Works of Lenin published during his lifetime which stated: “On the war question, the Mezhraiontsy occupied an internationalist position, and in their tactics were close to the Bolsheviks.”
The Kornilov Rebellion
Slowly at first, but then with ever greater energy, the Bolsheviks were also regrouping. Under the indefatigable leadership of Yakov Sverdlov, a capable and cool-headed organiser from the Urals, things were quickly pulled together in Petrograd. The repression had not succeeded in destroying the party. This was no accident. The counter-revolution was still feeling its way. It was obliged to camouflage its actions by speaking in the name of the revolution and the Soviets. Even the troops who put down the July demonstration did so in the name of defending the Soviet. A drastic clampdown would have caused problems, although that is what Kerensky wanted. They were obliged to proceed with caution. Even the trials of the ‘German agents’ had to be postponed, in part for the complete lack of any real evidence. Conditions were still difficult, of course. The loss of offices and records temporarily disorganised the work: “We lost just about everything – our documents, accounts, quarters, literally everything!” a member of the Executive Committee complained. The suppression of Pravda was a serious blow, and the party was reduced to turning out leaflets on a dilapidated hand press left over from the tsarist period. Only in early August were the Bolsheviks able to resume publication of a regular organ. However, morale was quickly recovering. Sverdlov was able to telegraph party organisations in the provinces that “the mood in Piter [the colloquial name for Petrograd] is hale and hearty. We are keeping our heads. The organisation is not destroyed”. (A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 62 and p. 59.)
The Bolshevik leadership met on 13-14 July to consider the change of tactics proposed by Lenin, which was badly received. Out of 15 party leaders in attendance, ten voted against. The resolution finally adopted by the Central Committee made no reference either to the end of the period of peaceful development of the revolution or to the need to prepare for an armed uprising. When Lenin found this out the next day, he was thoroughly alarmed. What did this foot-dragging mean? In his article On Slogans, he tackled head-on the tendency of his comrades to postpone revolutionary action and make concessions to the reformists. The situation had experienced a sharp turn after the July Days. The reaction was now in the saddle:
Primarily, and above all, the people must know the truth – they must know who actually wields state power. The people must be told the whole truth, namely, that power is in the hands of a military clique of Cavaignacs(Kerensky, certain generals, officers, etc.), who are supported by the bourgeois class headed by the Cadet Party, and by all the monarchists, acting through the Black Hundred papers, Novoye Vremya, Zhivoye Slovo, etc., etc.
These words proved to be prophetic. The Cavaignacs of the officer caste were indeed preparing a counter-stroke. It was necessary to prepare the party and warn the masses of the impending conflict. And the Soviets? Lenin wrote:
Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present Soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the Soviets. It is not a question of Soviets in general, but of combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets. (LCW, On Slogans, vol. 25, p. 188 and p. 189.)
At the Second City Conference, Volodarsky, who had come over with the Mezhraiontsy and played a prominent role in the Bolshevik organisation in Petrograd until his assassination by a Left SR terrorist in 1918, expressed the views of many of those present when he said:
People who claim the counter-revolution is victorious are making judgements about the masses on the basis of their leaders. While the [top Menshevik and SR] leaders are shifting rightward, the masses are moving leftward. Kerensky, Tsereteli and Avksentiev are caliphs for one hour…
The petty bourgeoisie will swing to our side. Bearing this in mind, it is clear that the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ is not obsolete.
Another delegate, Veinberg, added:
The present government won’t be able to do a thing about the economic crisis; the Soviets and political parties will swing leftward. The majority of the democracy is grouped around the Soviets and so rejecting the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ can have very harmful consequences. (Quoted in A. Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 68.)
As a matter of fact, Lenin was mistaken. Lenin, who was in hiding, later admitted that he was out of touch with the situation. Subsequent developments showed that the Bolsheviks could still win a majority in the Soviets and defeat the right-wing reformist leaders, and it was precisely this that guaranteed the success of the October Revolution. Now this seems so obvious that further comment is superfluous. Yet there was nothing automatic about it. Throughout the summer, it was touch and go, and Lenin’s worries were by no means without foundation.
The decisive turning point was precisely the moment when it seemed that the Bolsheviks had suffered a decisive defeat and initiative had passed to the counter-revolution. Throughout the summer of 1917, the pendulum continued to swing towards the right. On 18 July, General Brussilov was replaced by General Lavr Kornilov, an adventurer who, unlike most other members of the officer caste, was not an aristocrat but the son of a Cossack smallholder. Personally brave, Kornilov was also a maverick with a habit of disobeying orders. Narrow in outlook and politically illiterate, he had the soldier’s solution to all problems: There was nothing wrong with Russia that could not be solved by a whiff of grapeshot and the crack of an officer’s whip. Of him it was remarked that he had “the heart of a lion, and the brain of a sheep”.
Echoing the central demand of the counter-revolution, Kornilov insisted on the reintroduction of the death penalty at the front, where, in practice, he had already introduced it by ordering deserters to be shot. As a condition for accepting the Supreme Command, Kornilov dictated terms to Kerensky. In addition to the death penalty, he demanded the prohibition of meetings at the front, the disbanding of revolutionary regiments and an end to the powers of soldiers’ committees. Later, these demands were broadened to include the restoration of the death penalty for civilians, the imposition of martial law, and the banning of strikes in defence industries and the railways, on pain of capital punishment. This was a finished programme for a counter-revolutionary dictatorship.
For his part, Kerensky did not disagree with any of this, except maybe the timing. His main disagreement with Kornilov was that there could only be one Bonaparte, and Kerensky was determined to reserve that role for himself. However, personal rivalries did not prevent Kerensky from entering into contact with Kornilov and participating in the plot. This has led historians like Orlando Figes to assume that Kornilov never intended to overthrow Kerensky and install himself as dictator, but only to save the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks. But Figes’ own researches contradict this argument. He writes:
None of which is to deny that many of Kornilov’s supporters were urging him to do away with the Provisional Government altogether. The Union of Officers, for example, laid plans for a military coup d’état, while a ‘conference of public men’ in mid-August, made up mostly of Cadets and right-wing businessmen, clearly encouraged Kornilov in that direction. At the centre of these rightist circles was Vasilii Zavoiko, a rather shady figure – property speculator, industrial financier, journalist and political intriguer – who, according to General Martynov, acted as Kornilov’s “personal guide, one might even say his mentor, on all state matters”. Zavoiko’s plans for a coup d’état were so well known that even Whitehall had heard of them: as early as 8 August the Foreign Ministry in London told Buchanan, its Ambassador in Petrograd, that according to its military sources, Zavoiko was plotting the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Nor is it to deny that Kornilov himself had his own ambitions in the political field – the cult of Kornilov, which he helped to generate, was a clear manifestation of this – and he must have been tempted by the constant urgings of his supporters, like Zavoiko, to exploit his enormous popularity in order to install himself as dictator. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1824, pp. 445-46.)
Figes bases himself on the fact that Kornilov, while his army was advancing on Petrograd, loudly proclaimed that he was doing so in order to ‘save’ the government from a ‘Bolshevik coup’ which was rumoured to be planned for the end of August. This ‘coup’ was an invention, and had obviously been cooked up as a justification for Kornilov’s action in ordering General Krymov to advance on Petrograd. That is a pathetic line of argument. One does not have to be a genius to see that Kornilov was only using the well-known tactic of disguising an offensive action as a defensive one. Pretending to ‘save’ the existing government, he would place the latter at his mercy and then brush it to one side and install himself as dictator. This scenario is not even original. It is the well-worn path trodden by every would-be Bonapartist, from Napoleon onwards.
Kerensky, the other aspiring Bonaparte, attempted to do a deal with Kornilov through his emissary, the Octobrist Duma deputy V.N. Lvov. But Kornilov told Lvov that he was demanding dictatorial powers for himself. There was no room for a second Bonaparte! Only at this point did Kerensky denounce Kornilov’s ‘counter-revolutionary conspiracy’ to the cabinet. Kornilov was ordered to withdraw his troops. If indeed he was only acting to save the Provisional Government, then it is not clear why he did not take orders from it and retire to barracks. Instead, he announced his intention to ‘save Russia’ from a government which was now under the control of the Bolsheviks!
On 25 August General Kornilov began his advance on Petrograd. This was a sudden and sharp turn in events, which is one of the main characteristics of a revolutionary period. And here we see the importance of tactics, which by their very nature must be flexible, such that a revolutionary party can change course within a question of days or even hours, if necessary. The question was posed point-blank: what attitude should the Bolsheviks take in the conflict between Kerensky and Kornilov? Despite the counter-revolutionary and repressive policy of the Provisional Government, it was necessary to join in the struggle against the open forces of reaction represented by Kornilov. This was understood instinctively by the workers, including the Bolshevik workers of the Vyborg District who were the first to rush to the defence of Petrograd.
Alarmed by this turn in events, the reformist leaders in the Soviet Executive were compelled to issue a call to the workers to defend the revolution. The Bolsheviks were invited to participate in the Committee for Struggle Against the Counter-revolution. Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison, where they had languished after the July Days. Immediately, the Bolsheviks accepted the offer of a united front, and energetically set about combating the counter-revolution. However, the Bolshevik policy in no sense signified support for the Provisional Government. As Lenin explained:
Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten. (LCW, To the CC of the RSDLP, vol. 25, pp. 289-90.)
Lenin stated that the Bolsheviks would use Kerensky as a ‘gun rest’ to fight against Kornilov, and then, when they were strong enough, they would deal with Kerensky:
We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way, namely, we shall point out to the people (who are fighting against Kornilov) Kerensky’s weakness and vacillation. That has been done in the past as well. Now, however, it has become the all-important thing and this constitutes the change. (LCW, To the CC of the RSDLP, vol. 25, p. 290.)
This is the essence of Lenin’s tactic throughout 1917: not to attack the reformist leaders directly, but to outflank them, to attack the main enemy, the landlords and capitalists and the reaction, and to show in practice that the reformists were incapable of fighting reaction, incapable of acting decisively in the interests of the workers and peasants.
Here was a classic example of the Leninist policy of the united front in action. The Bolsheviks threw themselves energetically into struggle alongside the Menshevik and SR rank-and-file workers and soldiers who had earlier believed the slanders about ‘German agents’. They proved in action that they were the best fighters against the counter-revolution, and thereby laid the basis for winning over the mass of workers and soldiers who had hitherto backed the reformist leaders.
There can be no doubt that the participation of the Bolsheviks was decisive in defeating Kornilov. Even the anti-Bolshevik Figes admits that:
The Committee of Struggle represented a united front of the whole Soviet movement. But it was effectively dependent on the military organisation of the Bolsheviks, without which, in the words of Sukhanov, it “could only have passed the time with appeals and idle speeches by orators who had lost their authority”. Only the Bolsheviks had the ability to mobilise and arm the mass of the workers and soldiers, and they now worked in close collaboration with their rivals in the Soviets. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 452.)
Utilising revolutionary methods, the Bolsheviks mobilised the workers against the Kornilovites. On paper, the latter represented a formidable force. Their shock troops were the so-called Savage Division, recruited from warlike mountain tribes in the North Caucasus. But the movement of the reactionary troops under General Krymov soon ground to a halt. The railway workers sabotaged the trains, which were driven off course and into sidings, as the points were switched by an invisible hand. Once the advance was halted, the rebel troops were engaged by Bolshevik agitators, who even persuaded the Cossacks not to fight. The Savage Division was addressed in their own language by a delegation of Caucasian Muslims who happened to be at a Soviet congress in Petrograd at the time of the mutiny. Soon the rebel officers had been arrested by their own men. Krymov shot himself. The Kornilov revolt collapsed, like a wave breaking over a rock.
Marx once wrote that the revolution needs the whip of the counter-revolution, and that was shown to be true. What was intended to be the decisive move of the counter-revolution was turned into its opposite. The defeat of Kornilov gave a powerful impulse to the revolution. Everywhere the soldiers turned against their officers. Many were arrested by their own men. The most unpopular ones were shot. The soldiers’ assemblies voted for the immediate signing of peace, and the transfer of power to the Soviets. They also voted with their feet. Whole units disbanded, as the peasant soldiers returned to their villages. The arrival of so many radicalised elements from the front in turn acted as a stimulus to the peasant revolt that flared up in September. The revolution had entered its decisive phase.
The Struggle for the Masses
The decisive arena of struggle, without doubt, was the Soviets. From the moment of Lenin’s return, the Bolshevik Party was firmly oriented to the goal of the conquest of power. But the prior condition for this was the winning over of a decisive majority of the working class. This meant winning a majority in those organisations that commanded the allegiance of the mass of workers and soldiers – the Soviets. But a serious obstacle was the domination of the Soviets by the reformist leaders, the Mensheviks and SRs. From February until the summer, the majority was firmly in the hands of the Mensheviks and SRs who favoured a coalition with the bourgeois liberals, although they were obliged to cover their rear end by using the old formula of supporting the Provisional Government ‘insofar as’ it did this or that. This was to silence criticisms from the workers in the Soviets who were naturally suspicious of the bourgeois government. But they trusted their leaders and would not automatically abandon them, even though they did not agree with some of their policies. The Bolsheviks were initially at a great disadvantage. Their weakness in the Soviets immediately after February is even greater than the figures suggest. In some Soviets they had a disproportionately large representation because they did deals with the Mensheviks to present joint lists of candidates. Thus, in Saratov, the Bolsheviks got three out of five members of the Soviet presidium, when they only had 28 out of 248 deputies in the plenum. (See J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, p. 142.)
From the spring onwards, the Bolsheviks waged an energetic campaign for new elections to the Soviets. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly from their own experience. Soviets, it is true, are a much more faithful reflection of the changing moods and consciousness of the masses than the cumbersome machinery of even the most democratic parliament. But even the Soviets lagged behind the swiftly changing situation, and more often than not reflected the yesterday rather than the today of the masses’ ideas and aspirations. The Bolsheviks were always much stronger in the factory committees because these were much closer to the rank-and-file workers and thus reflected more quickly the real mood at the bottom.
Between August and September, the composition of the Soviets experienced a dramatic transformation. Here again the Kornilov affair marks the decisive turning point. The threat of counter-revolution spurred the Soviets to demand decisive action, and the Bolshevik slogans of a break with the bourgeoisie and ‘all power to the Soviets’ began to take root. The Soviet Executive Committee was inundated with telegrams demanding that it take the power. Although the process was somewhat uneven, the general tendency was clearly towards the Bolsheviks from this time onwards. The Soviet Executive still clung to its discredited policy of support for the Provisional Government, but only by a wafer-thin majority – there were 86 delegates in favour of soviet power, and only 97 against. But the situation was changing by the day, almost by the hour.
A decisive turning point occurred in the first week of September when control of the Petrograd Soviet passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks. The balance of forces was revealed when a resolution demanding the formation of a government of workers and peasants proposed by the Bolsheviks received 229 votes, with 115 against and 51 abstentions, which revealed that many of the Menshevik and SR workers had voted for the Bolsheviks. As a result, the stunned reformist leadership announced their resignation. Panicking at the loss of this key position, the reformists immediately commenced a furious campaign in the pages of Izvestiya, alleging, as usual in such cases, that the meeting had been unrepresentative and calling on all delegates to turn up to the next meeting to overturn the vote. (See O. Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia: 1905-1921, p. 189.)
The session of 9 September was a heated one. Everyone was aware of the vital importance of the outcome. All the factions ensured that they were represented down to the last delegate. There were about 1,000 delegates present. Fearing that they could not get a majority on their own to oust the presidium, the Bolshevik delegation proposed that the voting be on a proportional basis. Lenin condemned this procedural move, which he feared might blunt the edge of the Bolsheviks’ case. The issue was the question of workers’ power, and no amount of constitutional wrangling should be allowed to obscure this. But Lenin need not have worried. The issues were sufficiently clear to all, and the procedural proposal had the advantage that it helped win over the wavering elements, namely Martov’s group and even the more right-wing Popular Socialists. In any case, the chairman Tsereteli ruled the compromise out of order. But the right wing had miscalculated. By ruling out a compromise and obliging the delegates to vote on a straight resolution, moved by the reformists, that the previous vote on 1 September did not correspond to the line of the Soviet, and reaffirming support for the old presidium, they forced the Bolsheviks to pick up the gauntlet and polarised the whole meeting. It was a question of ‘either… or’.
The leading speaker for the Bolsheviks was Trotsky, in his first public appearance since his release from prison. He was warmly applauded by part of the hall, before launching a blistering attack on the presidium. Was Kerensky still a member of the presidium, yes or no? The question immediately put the presidium on a wrong footing. After a moment’s hesitation, the answer was given in the affirmative. This was exploited to the full by Trotsky: “We had firmly believed that Kerensky would not be allowed to sit in the presidium. We were mistaken. The ghost of Kerensky now sits between Dan and Cheidze… When they propose to you to sanction the political line of the presidium, do not forget that you will be sanctioning the policies of Kerensky.” (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 805.) Even at this stage, the Bolsheviks directed their fire, not so much at the reformists, but always at the bourgeois and Kerensky, who was now completely identified with the bourgeois. By such skilful propaganda, they succeeded in winning over workers who had up until recently stood solidly behind the Mensheviks and SRs. By concentrating their attacks on the class enemy, they systematically exposed the class-collaborationist policies of the reformists, their cowardice, their unwillingness to confront the enemies of the workers and peasants, and thereby drove a wedge between the reformists and their supporters.
The result of the vote could not be clearer: for the Coalition, 414 votes; against, 519; abstentions, 67. This victory for the Bolsheviks was even more resounding for the fact that the reformists had spared no efforts to pack the meeting with their supporters and had themselves insisted in turning the vote into a referendum on the issue: The Coalition or Soviet Power? Reformism or Bolshevism? The defeat was a body blow to the right wing. They had invested so much in winning this meeting that the loss of the vote seemed to deflate them utterly. On the other hand, the left wing was encouraged and pressed home its advantage. On 11 September, when Dan defended the Coalition against Trotsky, who spoke for a Soviet government in the Petrograd Soviet, the Coalition was rejected with only ten votes cast for, and seven abstentions. The battle in Petrograd had been decisively won.
The tide was now flowing strongly in favour of the Bolsheviks everywhere. On 5 September, the Congress of Soviets of Central Siberia solidly backed the Bolsheviks. Moscow soon followed suit, with the Bolsheviks winning the majority not only in the Soviet, but in the soldiers’ committee that existed separately from it. In the elections to the Moscow Workers’ Soviet Executive Committee, held on 19 September, the Bolsheviks won 32 seats, the Mensheviks 16. Nogin was elected President. On 5 October, the Bolsheviks presented a resolution on the current situation to a session of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet and the result was 335 votes for and 254 against. But in the Executive of the Soldiers’ Soviet the situation was different. Here the Bolsheviks remained in a minority, with 16 seats, as against 26 for the SRs and nine Mensheviks – a situation that lasted right up to the October insurrection. For this reason in the general meetings of both executives, the rival factions were evenly balanced, and the Bolsheviks were sometimes in a minority, although they usually managed to get their resolutions passed. On the other hand, in the Moscow region as a whole, the Bolsheviks had won the majority as far back as May. (See O. Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia: 1905-1921, pp. 190-91.)
The Bolsheviks also had a strong position in the northern territories around Petrograd. In the Kronstadt Soviet, the Bolsheviks had 100 delegates, the Left SRs 75, the Menshevik Internationalists 12, the anarchists seven. The rest (90) were independents. The Bolsheviks got the majority in Finland – especially in Helsingfors and Vyborg, where the power of the Provisional Government was already eliminated in September. In Estonia, too, the left won outright. The big majority in September in Reval, Dorpat, and Wenden were Bolsheviks and Left SRs. In the regional committee elected in October there were six Bolsheviks, four Left SRs, one Menshevik Internationalist, and one right Menshevik. The organisation of the Baltic Fleet – Centrobalt – broke off all relations with the Provisional Government and began to run its own affairs. The Fifth Legion, which was considered to be the finest of the front-line regiments, in mid-October voted in a new committee with a majority of Bolsheviks. Thus, not only Petrograd, but all the surrounding regions were firmly with the Bolsheviks.
Historically, the struggle to win influence in the trade unions, the basic unit of working-class organisation, always occupied a central place in the strategy and tactics of Bolshevism. However, in the Russian Revolution, while the fight for control of the unions continued unabated, it was pushed into second place by the parallel struggle in the Soviets and factory committees. There were a number of reasons for this. In tsarist Russia, the trade unions eked out a precarious existence under an autocratic regime that frequently subjected them to arrests and all kinds of prohibitions that severely restricted their freedom to act. Thus, in 1917, the unions were in a relatively weak state, embracing only a small minority of workers, mostly in the more skilled and better paid layers of the class. The mass of unorganised workers who poured onto the stage after February organised themselves spontaneously in the Soviets and factory committees that were more flexible and more representative than the unions, which more often than not were dominated by conservative elements who naturally gravitated to the Mensheviks, rather than the revolutionary wing.
Among the first institutions to rally to the Bolsheviks were the factory committees. By June-July the Petrograd committees were already under Bolshevik control; and at the third All-Russian Conference of Factory Committees (17-22 October) more than half the 167 voting delegates were Bolsheviks who also enjoyed the support of the 24 Socialist-Revolutionary delegates. The opposition consisted only of seven Mensheviks and 13 Anarcho-Syndicalists. This was indeed, as Trotsky proudly claimed, “the most direct and indubitable representation of the proletariat in the whole country”. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 269.)
The work in the Soviets and factory committees, of course, did not mean that the Bolsheviks neglected the unions. On the contrary. Throughout 1917, the trade unions were a field of constant struggle between the revolutionary tendency and the reformist leaders. The advance of the Bolsheviks was more rapid in the metal workers of Petrograd, where they soon won a predominant influence. Workers were recruited en masse at factory meetings where all the main decisions were taken by an open show of hands. Here, too, the fresh new layers immediately gravitated to the revolutionary wing. It was this very layer that transformed the internal situation of the Bolshevik Party itself. Already in April, all but four executives of the metal workers’ union in Petrograd were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. By June, the Petrograd organisation had a “fully formed apparatus” of over a hundred strong, paid for out of union funds. From Petrograd, the party’s influence in the unions spread out to other areas. By May the metal workers’ union had 54,000 members, and by August, 138,000. (See J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, p. 101.) Given that the total workforce employed in the metal industry stood at 546,100 in January 1917, this represented a sizeable proportion of a key section of the proletariat. By the end of the year, the unions claimed a membership of 544,527 members in 236 organisations.
The picture in the textile union, the second most important group, was more mixed. In June, the union claimed a total membership of 240,000 members, and may have reached 400,000 by October. This was half the total employed in the industry. A large part of the workforce were women, and the textile industry was badly affected by unemployment, so there was at first a tendency to look to the union for solutions to pressing socioeconomic problems rather than revolutionary politics. This might explain why the Mensheviks and SRs dominated the union (except in Petrograd, where the Bolsheviks had a small group before the February Revolution, and rapidly became the dominant force) in the period after February. But the Bolsheviks, once again using their base in Petrograd as a launching pad, set out to conquer one area after another, beginning with the important Central Industrial Area. In June they called a regional conference where a number of Bolshevik-inspired resolutions were passed, demanding, among other things, workers’ control of industry. The Menshevik leaders, in a manner common to all trade union bureaucracies when they are on the losing end, claimed that the conference was ‘irregular’. But in fact, it merely reflected a general swing to the left among the workers who were beginning to break free of the influence of the reformist leaders. The changing mood was reflected by the fact that the conference elected a new executive committee in which the Bolsheviks held positions of influence. Thus, step by step, the persistent and systematic work of the revolutionary tendency was wresting one position after another from the Mensheviks and SRs. By August, the Bolsheviks had managed to gain a strong position in the main industrial unions. Anweiler expresses the growth of the Bolsheviks in the unions thus:
While the Bolsheviks at the All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (June 1917) only had the support of 36.4 per cent of the delegates, out of a total of 117 delegates in the Democratic Conference in September, 58 per cent were Bolsheviks, as against 38.4 per cent Mensheviks and right SRs.
Even in the traditionally conservative white-collar and craft unions, there had been a change in outlook and the Bolsheviks, though still in a minority, had won a sizeable following. However, in the upper reaches of the unions, things were different. The slow-moving machinery of the union structure meant that the changes at the lower level took a long time before communicating themselves to the leadership. In many of the unions, the Bolsheviks only gained control some time after the October Revolution. Some of them played an openly counter-revolutionary role, notably the bank clerks and the All-Russian Union of Railwaymen, which attempted to sabotage the Soviet government after the revolution.
Up until August, the Bolsheviks still remained a small minority of the working class. In the Soviets, they were the smallest group. The same was true of the local councils and the trade unions. In April, the party membership stood at around 80,000. By August, this had increased to 240,000. (O. Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia, p. 187 and p. 186.) But the party’s influence in the working class was growing, especially since the Kornilov episode. In some areas, like Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the Bolsheviks were in the majority as early as the spring. But such cases were exceptional. In the provinces, and still more in the rural areas, the gulf separating the Bolsheviks from the reformist parties was enormous.
The July Days seemed to mark the final demise of the Bolsheviks. Yet in a few weeks the party had all but recovered the lost ground. The tactics of the Bolsheviks in opposing the Kornilov rising was the fundamental turning point, winning colossal prestige for the Bolsheviks as the most determined and energetic fighters against the counter-revolution, and once and for all laying to rest the slanders about ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘German agents’. The tide began to flow strongly in favour of the Bolsheviks to the degree that it became clear that the Provisional Government was not solving any one of the pressing problems facing the Russian people, and that the reformist leaders were mere appendages of the capitalists. The Bolshevik slogan of ‘peace, bread, and land’ gained an ever wider audience.
By late August and early September, the Bolsheviks became the decisive mass force, not only in Petrograd and Moscow, but also in the provinces. Although the party remained relatively small in membership, for every member there were 20, 30, or 50 workers and soldiers who considered themselves to be Bolsheviks. Under such circumstances, when the current was flowing strongly in favour of the revolutionary tendency, even persecution acted as a spur to growth. Workers who were striking for higher wages, and were met with a chorus of disapproval from the bourgeois press which attacked them as Bolsheviks, became firmly convinced of the justness of the Bolsheviks’ cause, even though they had never read a single line of Lenin. Bolshevism was growing for the simple reason that its policies and slogans closely corresponded to the needs and aspirations of the workers and peasants.
At the Seventh All-Russian Conference, in the first week of May, 79,204 party members were represented by 149 delegates. The largest concentrations were in the Petrograd province and in the Urals (over 14,000 each), with Moscow province (7,000) and the Donets Basin (5,000) next in importance. The strength of the party increased rapidly in the next few months. Sverdlov told the Sixth Congress in August that the number of organisations had grown from 78 to 162, and he estimated the total strength of the party at 200,000. No information is available on party membership by November, but it may be presumed that a further increase took place, since the very incomplete data on the membership of individual organisations available to the Central Committee Secretariat show an increase after August in the case of a number of organisations. (L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p. 171.)
The party’s growth was reflected in a whole number of statistics. The first victory was chalked up in the factory committees. This was important because the factory committees were the organisations that most closely reflected the mood of the workers on the shop floor. The factory committees had sprung up immediately after the February Revolution, as the continuation of the strike committees. They were the cutting edge of the struggle for the eight-hour day, which they frequently introduced by their own initiative. The demand for workers’ control advanced by the Bolsheviks met with a ready response from the factory committees, which in many enterprises introduced control over hiring and firing, formed workers’ militias, and combated the attempts of the bosses to sabotage production.
On 30 May–3 June the first congress of factory committees was held in Petrograd. This was the scene of a bitter clash between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over the role and tasks of the committees. The Mensheviks naturally opposed workers’ control, which clashed with their whole conception of the bourgeois nature of the revolution and the right of the bourgeois to rule. The conference, however, passed the Bolshevik resolution. Lenin took part in this conference, and drafted the resolution ‘On Measures to Cope with Economic Dislocation’, which was carried by a big majority. From the summer of 1917, the factory committees in Petrograd, Moscow, and the Urals were solidly Bolshevik.
There was plenty of other evidence that the Bolsheviks were gaining ground. Even in the elections to town councils, the Bolsheviks were obtaining spectacular results. In the local elections in Petrograd, held in August, they increased their number of seats from 37 to 67, and went into second place behind the SRs who numbered 75. The Cadets had 42, but the Mensheviks saw their numbers reduced from 40 to only 8. This clearly shows the swing to the left. Still more surprising were the results of the local elections in Moscow. Table 6.2 overleaf compares the results with those of the elections in June.
This is significant because for the first time the Bolsheviks got an absolute majority of votes. The June figures refer to the Moscow City Duma elections, whereas the September figures refer to the ward elections. In the latter the participation was not particularly high (50 per cent). However, that does not diminish the importance of the result. It must not be forgotten that elections to parliament and local councils are not the most favourable field for a revolutionary party. It is generally far easier to obtain results in elections to unions or factory committees. This was especially the case in Russia in 1917, when the attention of the masses was concentrated on the Soviets. But still the Bolsheviks, with the aim of reaching the widest layers of society, did not ignore even local elections. The Moscow election result was highly significant because for the first time the Bolsheviks won an absolute majority in an important urban centre.
(6.2) Moscow Local Election Results by Month
(Source, O. Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia: 1905-1921, p. 188.)
In Petersburg the same trend was visible, although not quite to the same degree as in Moscow. Between August and November the Bolshevik vote went up from 184,000 to 424,000; the SRs went down from 206,000 to 152,000 and the Cadet vote went up from 114,000 to 274,000. Surprisingly, the Mensheviks also increased their vote from 24,000 to 29,000, but this relative rally cannot disguise the fact that they were now a small minority and had practically been almost wiped out as a real force in the working class in the capital.
Tactics of the Insurrection
From his hut in Razliv, Lenin followed the process of the revolution with keen attention, devouring all the reports, statistics, anecdotes, anything that could serve to determine the all-important question: when should the party strike? With his customary meticulousness, he studied the results of every election, every vote in the Soviets, unions and town councils, trying to see what light they cast on the class balance of forces. Lenin did not for a moment forget that election statistics present the correlation of forces in a very partial and distorted manner. But everything pointed to a swift advance of the revolutionary party. The memory of Kornilov’s revolt was still vivid in the minds of the workers and soldiers and the threat of counter-revolution provoked a rapid polarisation and radicalisation in the Soviets. New elections were taking place everywhere in the Soviets and soldiers organisations at the front. And in almost all of them, the vote for the Bolsheviks registered an astonishing advance. Power was slipping from the hands of the right-wing leaders who had displayed their complete impotence during the emergency. One by one, the Soviets in the main industrial centres changed their allegiance from the Mensheviks and SRs to the Bolsheviks: Petrograd, Finland, the fleet, the northern armies, Moscow and the central industrial area, the Urals.
True, the picture was not uniform. The SRs still held sway in the peasant Soviets and in the front-line regiments. But here also a process of internal differentiation was taking place. A left-wing tendency was rapidly gaining ground inside the Social Revolutionary Party, and in the process of splitting and lining up with the Bolsheviks. The right-wing SRs were strongest in the Black Earth region and in the Central Volga. In the Ukraine they shared control with the left nationalists. But the Mensheviks were losing ground everywhere. Only in their traditional stronghold, the Caucasus, did they manage to keep control of the Soviets which they had dominated all over Russia at the start of the revolution. Such was the balance of forces that determined Lenin’s next step. The Bolsheviks were now the decisive force inside the Soviets. The reformist leaders were isolated and besieged in their final refuge, the Soviet Executive. Was it not time to bring matters to a head, to strike the decisive blow?
Lenin was convinced that the time was ripe, and that any delay could prove fatal. But not all the other party leaders were thinking on the same lines. The party’s top leadership was still profoundly affected by the July defeat, and inclined towards excessive caution. Zinoviev, who had hitherto always followed Lenin’s line, had been badly shaken and now clung to Kamenev, who, as usual, took the road of ‘moderation’. From the beginning of September Lenin bombarded the Central Committee with letters, insistently demanding that it begin to organise the insurrection. In a letter to the Central Committee dated 12-14 (25-27) September, he opens with the words:
The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands. (LCW, The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power, vol. 26, p. 19.)
Lenin’s letter fell like a bombshell. The Central Committee was so aghast at its content and tone that they actually decided to destroy it, as Bukharin later recalled:
“When I entered, Milyutin came suddenly to meet me and said: ‘You know, Comrade Bukharin, we’ve received a little letter here’. The letter was read. We all gasped. No one had yet put the question so sharply. No one knew what to do. Everyone was at a loss for a while. Then we deliberated and came to a decision. Perhaps this was the only time in the history of our party when the Central Committee decided to burn a letter of Comrade Lenin’s.” (Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 137.)
Other letters followed, each one more emphatic than the last:
What are we doing? We are only passing resolutions. We are losing time. We set ‘dates’ (20 October, the Congress of Soviets – is it not ridiculous to put it off so long? Is it not ridiculous to rely on that?)
To ‘wait’ for the Congress of Soviets and so forth under such circumstances would be a betrayal of internationalism, a betrayal of the cause of the world socialist revolution.
We must… admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our Central Committee and among the leaders of our Party which favours waiting for the Congress of Soviets, and is opposed to taking power immediately, is opposed to an immediate insurrection. That tendency, or opinion, must be overcome. Otherwise, the Bolsheviks will cover themselves with eternal shame and destroy themselves as a party. For to miss such a moment and to ‘wait’ for the Congress of Soviets would be utter idiocy, or sheer treachery.
Finally, exasperated by the delaying tactics of the CC, Lenin threatened to resign from it and carry the struggle into the ranks of the party:
In view of the fact that the Central Committee has even left unanswered the persistent demands I have been making for such a policy ever since the beginning of the Democratic Conference, in view of the fact that the Central Organ is deleting from my articles all references to such glaring errors on the part of the Bolsheviks as the shameful decision to participate in the Pre-Parliament, the admission of Mensheviks to the presidium of the Soviet, etc., etc. – I am compelled to regard this as a ‘subtle’ hint at the unwillingness of the Central Committee even to consider this question, a subtle hint that I should keep my mouth shut, and as a proposal for me to retire.
I am compelled to tender my resignation from the Central Committee, which I hereby do, reserving for myself freedom to campaign among the rank and file of the Party and at the Party Congress.
For it is my profound conviction that if we ‘wait’ for the Congress of Soviets and let the present moment pass, we shall ruin the revolution. (LCW, The Crisis has Matured, vol. 26, p. 69, p. 81, p. 82 and p. 84.)
Crisis of Leadership
The real reason for Lenin’s insistence on immediate action was his fear that the party leaders would vacillate, would not proceed to prepare to take power and thus miss the opportunity. Once the moment is lost, it may take many years to return. Precisely for this reason a party and a leadership is necessary. Lenin was probably doubtful about the new members of the CC, Joffe and Uritsky, who had come over with the Mezhraiontsy and whom he did not know. Would they not be conciliators? And would Trotsky fall into line with Kamenev and Zinoviev? In his mistrust of the new members of the CC he was mistaken. They stood, like Trotsky, firmly on the left. But the ferocious resistance put up by his old comrades Kamenev, Zinoviev, and, though more guardedly, Stalin, was a bitter blow.
At every decisive turning point there were fierce controversies and polemics in the leadership. Such a controversy broke out over the question of participating in the Democratic Conference. This was a manoeuvre of the Mensheviks and SRs on the Central Executive of the Soviets who felt that power was slipping from their hands. In theory the Conference was called by the Executive in order to decide the question of power, but in practice it was to throw dust in the eyes of the masses, to divert attention away from the rising tide of revolution and into harmless speechifying and paper projects. The reformist leaders did their best to reduce the representation of the workers and peasants, and heavily weight the Conference in favour of petty bourgeois elements. They were trying to set up an alternative to the Soviets, where their influence was declining by the hour. To Lenin’s disgust, the Bolshevik Central Committee voted to participate in this charade and circulated party organisations to “do their utmost to build up the largest possible well-knit group of delegates from among our Party members”. (LCW, vol. 26, p. 530, note 4.)
Lenin was more than doubtful about this decision, but grudgingly went along with it, on condition that the Bolsheviks demonstratively separate themselves from all other tendencies and read out a statement to expose the Soviet leaders. The declaration stated that:
In struggling for the power in order to realise its programme, our party has never desired and does not desire to seize the power against the organised will of the majority of the toiling masses of the country.
Of this statement, Trotsky writes:
That meant: We will take the power as the party of the Soviet majority. Those words about “the organised will of the toiling masses” referred to the coming Congress of Soviets. “Only such decisions and proposals of the present Conference… can find their way to realisation” said the Declaration, “as are recognised by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets…” (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 836.)
The decision to participate in the Democratic Conference was actually a mistake, as Lenin later stated, but a relatively minor one, and easily rectified. Far more serious was the decision of the Bolshevik delegation at the Conference to agree to participate in the so-called pre-parliament that had been agreed there. This was a blunder of the first order. The move to set up a kind of ‘caretaker government’ was a transparent attempt by the reformist leaders to create the impression that Russia now had a parliamentary system, when the pre-parliament was merely an appendage of the bourgeois Provisional Government with only consultative rights. This was clearly a reactionary manoeuvre. Yet the Bolshevik delegates voted by 77 to 50 to take part in it. This move split the Central Committee, with Trotsky leading the fight to boycott the pre-parliament. Lenin, already worried that the Bolshevik leaders were wasting time, was beside himself with rage and frustration. He flatly demanded that the Bolsheviks withdraw from the pre-parliament and dedicate all their energies to preparing the insurrection.
In a footnote to the article in which he declared the participation in the Democratic Conference to have been a mistake and demanded the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the pre-parliament, Lenin writes:
Trotsky was for the boycott. Bravo, Comrade Trotsky! Boycottism was defeated in the Bolshevik group at the Democratic Conference. Long live the boycott!
We cannot and must not under any circumstances reconcile ourselves to participation. A group at one of the conferences is not the highest organ of the party and even the decisions of the highest organs are subject to revision on the basis of experience.
We must at all costs strive to have the boycott question solved both at a plenary meeting of the Executive Committee and at an extraordinary Party congress. The boycott question must now be made the platform for elections to the Congress and for all elections inside the Party. We must draw the masses into the discussion of this question. Class-conscious workers must take the matter into their own hands, organise the discussion, and exert pressure on ‘those at the top’.
There is not the slightest doubt that at the ‘top’ of our Party there are noticeable vacillations that may become ruinous, because the struggle is developing; under certain conditions, at a certain moment, vacillations may ruin the cause. We must put all our forces into the struggle, we must uphold the correct line of the party of the revolutionary proletariat before it is too late.
Not all is well with the ‘parliamentary’ leaders of our Party; greater attention must be paid to them, there must be greater workers’ supervision over them; the competency of parliamentary groups must be more clearly defined.
Our Party’s mistake is obvious. The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame. (LCW, From a Publicist’s Diary, vol. 26, pp. 57-58.)
Finally, not without a sharp struggle in the CC, in which Kamenev opposed withdrawing from the pre-parliament, Lenin’s advice was accepted and the Bolsheviks walked out on the first day, having first read out a declaration which ended in the cry: “Long live the direct and open struggle for revolutionary power in the country!”
On the day before Trotsky led the Bolsheviks out of the pre-parliament, the Central Committee met, at Lenin’s insistence, to discuss once more the question of insurrection. Given the urgency of the situation, Lenin came from Finland in disguise, complete with actor’s wig. But there was nothing either comic or theatrical about this discussion, upon which hinged the destiny of the revolution. Lenin tore into the compromisers on the CC. The minutes read:
Comrade Lenin maintains that a sort of indifference to the question of insurrection has been noticeable since the beginning of September. But this is impermissible if we are issuing the slogan of the seizure of power by the Soviets in all seriousness. It is therefore high time to pay attention to the technical aspect of the question. Apparently a lot of time has already been lost. (LCW, Meeting of the Central Committee of the RSDLP(B) 10 (23) October, 1917, vol. 26, p. 188.)
And he goes on to enumerate the reasons why the Bolsheviks should take power without delay. Significantly, he refers first to the international situation. The news of mutinies in the German fleet, of strikes of the Czech workers, and demonstrations and barricades in Italy indicated that the conditions for revolution were ripening on a world scale: “Take a glance at the international situation. The growth of a world revolution is beyond dispute,” Lenin wrote in his Letter to the Bolshevik Comrades. (LCW, Letter to the Bolshevik Comrades Attending the Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region, vol. 26, p. 182.)
Delay was impermissible because the fate of the revolution was in the balance. Either the Bolsheviks took power, or Kerensky would go onto the offensive against the Soviets. Red Petrograd could be surrendered to the Germans, and the Constituent Assembly put off indefinitely: “What is being done to surrender territory as far as Narva, and to surrender Petrograd makes it still more imperative for us to take decisive action.” And again, the same warning: the masses are tired of words and resolutions. They will begin to see the Bolsheviks as the same as all the other parties if they do not act to take power:
Absenteeism and indifference on the part of the masses is due to their being tired of words and resolutions. We now have the majority behind us. Politically, the situation is fully ripe for taking power. (LCW, Meeting of the Central Committee of the RSDLP(B) 10 (23) October, 1917, vol. 26, p. 188.)
How do we explain the crises and vacillations in the Bolshevik leadership during the course of 1917? If we set out from an idealised conception of the Bolshevik Party, this question cannot be answered.
How could it happen that Lenin, whom we have seen at the beginning of April isolated among the leaders of his own party, found himself again solitary in the same group in September and early October? This cannot be understood if you believe the unintelligent legend which portrays the history of Bolshevism as an emanation of the pure revolutionary idea. In reality Bolshevism developed in a definite social milieu undergoing its heterogeneous influences and among them the influence of a petty bourgeois environment and of cultural backwardness. To each new situation the party adapted itself only by way of an inner crisis. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 989.)
It is a law that, as the date of the insurrection approaches, the leadership of the revolutionary party comes under extreme pressure from alien classes, and a section begins to vacillate. The reason for this is not hard to find. The exact appraisal of the mood of the masses is never easy to determine. Given the colossal responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of the leadership in such a moment, the serious risks entailed in every decision, the pressure of bourgeois ‘public opinion’, nerves are stretched to breaking point and all weaknesses stand cruelly exposed. Yet on the eve of insurrection, weakness and vacillation can be afforded least of all.
The Question of the Soviet Congress
From the point of view of formal logic, defence and offence are immutable opposites. However, in practice, they frequently pass into each other. A defensive struggle, under certain conditions, can be transformed into an offensive struggle, and vice versa. There are many points of comparison between the wars between nations and wars between the classes. But there are also differences. A bourgeois standing army is prepared, financed, and armed for decades in preparation for war. The general staff can choose when and where hostilities begin. Of course, even here, it is not a purely military question. Clausewitz explained that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The military acts of bourgeois governments are determined by the class interests of the bourgeoisie. For this reason, Marxists have always pointed out that the question of who fires the first shot is an entirely secondary consideration which does not have any bearing on the concrete character of a war.
Every government in every war always tries to put the blame for starting it on the shoulders of the enemy. This is neither an accident nor a whim. War is not just a military question, but involves politics. The mobilisation of public opinion, at home and abroad, in support of the war is a fundamental question, which can only be resolved on the political plane. Napoleon explained that in warfare morale is to the physical as three to one. Hence, the fundamental task of diplomacy is to convince public opinion that its particular army acted only in self-defence, in response to intolerable provocation, enemy aggression, and so on. A government which did not act in this way would commit an intolerable blunder, and do enormous damage to its war effort.
All this is a thousand times more true in the socialist revolution. The proletariat, unlike the ruling class, does not possess an army, and will never possess an armed force capable of taking on the forces of the bourgeois state, provided that the latter remains intact. Whereas conventional war is mainly a military question, in which diplomacy plays a significant but subordinate role, the task of the socialist revolution is therefore mainly the political task of winning over the masses and the armed forces. The roles are reversed.
In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of the struggles of the working class begin as defensive struggles: struggles to defend living standards, jobs, democratic rights, etc. Under certain circumstances, particularly with correct leadership, these defensive struggles can prepare the way for an offensive, including a general strike, which poses the question of power. However, even in the course of a revolution, it is necessary to place all the responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class, in order to win over the masses, not only of the working class, but also of the petty bourgeoisie. It is therefore not only correct, but absolutely essential that the movement should be presented in a defensive light. Already in June Lenin wrote:
The socialist proletariat and our party must be as cool and collected as possible, must show the greatest staunchness and vigilance. Let the future Cavaignacs begin first. Our Party conference has already given warning of their arrival. The workers of Petrograd will give them no opportunity to disclaim responsibility. They will bide their time, gathering their forces and preparing for resistance when those gentlemen decide to turn from words to action. (LCW, The Turning Point, vol. 25, p. 83.)
The history of the Russian Revolution, before, during, and after October, suffices to demonstrate this. On the eve of the October Revolution, there was a difference of opinion between Lenin and Trotsky concerning the date of the insurrection. Lenin wanted to move straight to the seizure of power in September, whereas Trotsky was in favour of postponing the insurrection until the Congress of Soviets. Why did Trotsky take this position? Did he suffer from a lack of audacity? Not at all. Trotsky understood that, even in a revolution, the question of legality is extremely important for the masses. Trotsky was sure that the Bolsheviks would get the majority at the Congress, and could therefore appear before the masses as the legitimate power in society. This was not a secondary question, but was a vital factor in achieving a peaceful transfer of power. Once again, the essential element was not military, but political. Incidentally, the Bolsheviks presented the October insurrection as a defensive action to prevent Russia from sliding into chaos and civil war. And this is no accident. Even when you are in a position to go onto the offensive (which is by no means always the case, rather the contrary), it is always necessary to act and speak as if you were fighting a defensive struggle, placing all the responsibility on the enemy.
Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the taking of power because they were affected by the pressure of bourgeois public opinion and lost their nerve. Exaggeration of the strength of the enemy and a pessimistic appraisal of the fighting potential of the working class is highly characteristic of this state of mind. For them, postponement meant forever. Kamenev’s attitude was shown by a conversation he had with Raskolnikov only a few weeks before the insurrection:
When I met my old friend L.B. Kamenev I immediately launched into a discussion with him about ‘our differences’. The starting point of Lev Borisovich’s argument was that our Party was not yet ready for insurrection. True, we had large masses of various kinds behind us, and they readily passed our resolutions, but there was still a long way to go from ‘paper’ voting to active participation in an armed uprising. It was not certain that the Petrograd garrison would show itself resolute in battle, ready to conquer or die. When the first critical circumstances arose the soldiers would desert us and run away.
“The Government, on the other hand,” said Comrade Kamenev, “has splendidly organised troops at its disposal, devoted to its cause – Cossacks and cadets who have been well worked up against us and will fight desperately to the end”.
Drawing from all this depressing conclusions about our chances of victory, Comrade Kamenev had arrived at the view that an unsuccessful attempt at insurrection would result in defeat and downfall for our Party, which would throw us back and delay for a long time the development of the revolution. (F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, p. 256-57.)
Lenin was so insistent about the need to take power immediately, because he feared, not without reason, that the Bolshevik Conciliators would let the opportunity slip altogether. But his objection to the postponement of the insurrection until the Soviet Congress was not so well founded. Trotsky supported this postponement not only to win over the wavering elements on the CC, but for sound tactical reasons. The majority of workers and soldiers still looked to the authority of the Soviets. They would support the seizure of power on the basis that it was done in the name of the Soviets, but not necessarily in the name of the Bolsheviks alone. Therefore, the insurrection should coincide with the Congress of Soviets, where the Bolsheviks and their allies were sure of winning the majority. Lenin was doubtful about this stratagem. Was this not yet another example of prevarication and legalistic-parliamentary cretinism?
However, Trotsky’s position was undoubtedly correct. He understood the need to continue the work of winning over the Soviets right up to the moment of the insurrection, in order to mobilise the maximum forces for the rising, and minimise resistance. That is why he supported, against Lenin’s opposition, the postponement of the insurrection to coincide with the Congress of Soviets where the Bolsheviks would win the majority. Thus, even in the course of an insurrection itself, the question of legality, far from being relegated to an unimportant position, assumes a crucial role in winning over the more inert layers of the masses. The insurrection took place, as Trotsky had proposed, coinciding with the Congress. That, of course, did not prevent the Stalinists from maintaining that Trotsky’s proposal “in practice meant bungling the insurrection and allowing the Provisional Government to pull up its forces to crush the uprising on the day the Congress opened.” (LCW, vol. 26, p. 547, note 79.)
The decision to organise the insurrection was taken by the Central Committee, at Lenin’s insistence, on 10 October. It seems clear that Lenin intended to utilise the Northern Region Congress of Soviets, which took place in Petrograd from 11 to 13 October, to start the insurrection. According to the Latvian Bolshevik Latsis, the plan was that the Northern Congress would declare itself the government, and this would be the start. This was one of many regional Soviet congresses which were being held in preparation for the coming All-Russian Congress. The Congress was dominated by the left: 51 Bolsheviks, 24 Left SRs, four Maximalists (a small terrorist split-off from the SRs), one Menshevik Internationalist, and only ten SRs and four Mensheviks, who immediately walked out. Originally planned to be held in Helsingfors in Finland, it had been moved to the capital as a more appropriate place from which to start the insurrection.
In a message to the Bolshevik delegates to the Northern Region Congress, Lenin wrote that they would be “traitors to the International” if they limited themselves to “mere resolutions”. But the Congress did not vote for immediate insurrection. Instead, it passed a resolution which declared for a Soviet government, but linked it to the forthcoming All-Russian Congress. This was the general mood at the time. Reports from many areas showed the same picture: that workers would be prepared to fight for the establishment of a Soviet government if it were proclaimed by the Soviet Congress, but not necessarily if it were proclaimed by a single party, the Bolsheviks, without the stamp of authority of the Soviets. Moreover, internal reports, especially from the Bolshevik Military Organisation, revealed a disappointing state of unreadiness and “flagrant deficiencies”. Probably these were exaggerated. The Military Organisation always tended to attach excessive importance to the purely military-technical side, whereas in practice, the political questions were decisive. Nevertheless, these reports did reveal something. After the bitter experience of the July Days, the Bolshevik activists feared isolation and were inclined to be cautious – perhaps too cautious. Nevertheless, it became increasingly clear that the party was not yet prepared either psychologically or organisationally for the decisive leap. A couple more weeks were needed. And that already meant that the uprising would coincide with the Second All-Russian Congress.
The Final Chapter
By skilful and flexible tactics, the Bolsheviks succeeded in drastically increasing their influence in the Soviets in the months before October, to the point where, together with their allies, they could command a majority at the Soviet Congress. That, and that alone, explains the relatively peaceful character of the October insurrection. The reason was not primarily military, but the fact that nine-tenths of the work had already been accomplished beforehand. The most vital arena of struggle was in the Soviets themselves. Anweiler gives the following breakdown of the relations between the parties in the Soviets on the eve of the insurrection:
1) In the workers soviets in almost all the big industrial cities the Bolsheviks had the majority, and the same was true of the majority of soldiers’ soviets in the regiments. The essential points of their influence were:
a) Finland, Estland [Estonia], Petersburg and the surrounding region, part of the Northern Front and the navy; b) The central industrial zone around Moscow; c) The Urals; d) Siberia where they were equally balanced with the SRs.
2) In the peasants’ soviets and in the front-line soviets the SRs were still the dominant force. A strong left wing, which finally split away from the SR party in the weeks leading up to October, was on the side of the Bolsheviks and frequently helped them to obtain a majority in most of the Soviets. The moderate SRs were strongest in:
a) The Black Sea area and the Central Volga; b) The Ukraine (together with the nationalist Socialist parties); c) The Eastern, South-eastern and Rumanian fronts.
3) The Mensheviks had lost their dominant position in the workers’ soviets almost everywhere after the first months of the revolution. Only in the Caucasus, especially in Georgia, where they could also base themselves on the peasant population, were they much stronger than the Bolsheviks in October 1917.
4) For the first time groups of Maximalists and anarchists played an important role in some soviets. They supported the Bolsheviks in October and significantly contributed to the radicalisation of the masses. (O. Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia: 1905-1921, p. 194.)
Anweiler exaggerates the role of the anarchists and maximalists, who were a tiny minority, representing the ultra-left tendencies that always exist, but cannot play any real role. A certain growth of such tendencies in a revolution is to be expected. Lenin himself explained that the masses were already getting tired of waiting. Individual workers or sometimes small groups of workers who have moved a bit too far ahead of the class can be attracted to the radical-sounding slogans of the ultra-lefts. But for every one of these there are 50, 100, or 1,000 who will go to the traditional mass organisations, even where these are under the leadership of the reformists. The reason why the anarchists played no significant role in the Russian Revolution was because of the existence of the Bolshevik Party. In State and Revolution, Lenin wrote in sympathetic terms about the anarchist workers, while criticising their half-baked notions about the state, pointing out that anarchism (and ultra-leftism in general) is the price the movement has to pay for the opportunism of the reformist labour leaders.
Under Russian conditions reformism was always a feeble and sickly plant. There was no tradition of powerful reformist trade unions and Labour Parties as in Western Europe. Nevertheless, for the reasons already outlined, the Russian workers in February, even as they established the Soviets, took the line of least resistance and backed the reformist parties in the Soviets. Only through the experience of great events did the masses reject these leaders and move in the direction of Bolshevism. But this process was neither easy nor automatic. It was only made possible by the generally correct policies and tactics of the Bolsheviks, above all, their clear orientation to those mass organisations that had been created by the workers and which, to the end, had tremendous attractive power, despite the policies of the leaders – the Soviets and the trade unions.
The way in which the workers cling to the established mass organisations was strikingly revealed on the eve of October by the controversy around the date of the insurrection and the Soviet Congress. Lenin was quite rightly worried about the constitutional and parliamentary cretinism of Bolshevik leaders like Kamenev and Zinoviev. He feared delay, since every day that passed gave the time and opportunity to the counter-revolutionaries to regroup and launch a new offensive. There were persistent rumours (subsequently shown to be true) that Kerensky was planning to move the centre of government to Moscow. There was every possibility that the Provisional Government would let Petrograd fall into the hands of the Germans, rather than see it fall to the Bolsheviks. There is ample evidence that the bourgeoisie in the capital was waiting to receive the Kaiser’s armies as saviours. At the time of Kornilov’s uprising, the Germans had taken Riga. Later they occupied two strategic islands in the Baltic, placing them in striking distance of Petrograd. The danger was real enough.
Mikhail Rodzianko, the former head of the Duma, confessed in so many words that it would be better for the Germans to take Petrograd:
“Petrograd appears threatened (by the Germans)… I say to hell with Petrograd… People fear our central institutions in Petrograd will be destroyed. To this, let me say that I should be glad if these institutions are destroyed because they have brought Russia nothing but grief.” (Quoted in A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 226.)
At the very least, Kerensky was preparing to get rid of the mutinous Petrograd garrison, using the excuse of the German threat. But, as the gulf between the classes opened ever wider, the threat that the Soviets would be dissolved by the forces of reaction loomed larger.
The main argument employed against Lenin was “we must wait for the Soviet Congress”. But Lenin feared that the Congress would be postponed. The Soviet leaders had already postponed it once, fearing that they would lose control. Why should they not do this again? Then the opponents of insurrection had another argument. Why not wait for the convening of the promised Constituent Assembly? They were always looking for some pretext or other to postpone the insurrection. Here again Lenin thought it highly likely that the Provisional Government would postpone or cancel the convening of elections to the Constituent Assembly. Hence, his implacable opposition to waiting for the Congress of Soviets, or anything else.
Lenin’s impatience, and his constant fear that the Bolshevik leaders were dragging their feet, were partly dictated by the waverings of Kamenev and Zinoviev, who were far from being alone in the Bolshevik leadership. But they were also partly the result of Lenin’s isolation. Trotsky, who was more in touch with the situation on the ground, was in favour of preparing the insurrection, but making it coincide with the Congress of Soviets, which would give it the necessary legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. This showed a sharp insight into the psychology of the workers. The Bolsheviks had certainly made extraordinary progress since the summer. The growth of the membership was now so rapid that it swamped the meagre capacity of the party’s apparatus, which was unable to keep pace with it. In August, at the time of the Sixth Congress, the membership stood at around 240,000. At the Central Committee meeting of 16 October, Sverdlov reported that “the growth of the party has reached gigantic proportions: at the present time it must be estimated at 400,000 at least.” (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p. 158.)
In fact, it is impossible to arrive at an exact figure for party membership at this time. The Bolshevik Party’s apparatus was still relatively weak and constantly overwhelmed with work. In a revolution, the demands of the hour must take precedence over such mundane tasks as keeping up-to-date membership figures. Any estimate must therefore necessarily have a conditional character. Lenin himself admitted that it was all but impossible to get an accurate idea of the membership in September, but pointed to the increased donations from workers as proof of the party’s rapid growth:
In the absence of any statistics concerning the fluctuation of the party membership, attendance at meetings, etc., the conscious support of the party by the masses may be judged only from published data concerning cash collections for the party. These data show a tremendous mass-scale heroism on the part of worker-Bolsheviks in collecting money for Pravda, for the papers that have been suppressed, etc. The reports of such collections have always been published. (LCW, The Russian Revolution and Civil War, vol. 26, p. 32.)
What is not in question is the fact that the Bolsheviks, who had started the year as a tiny organisation, had grown rapidly to the point where they became the dominant force in the working class. But even with a membership of 400,000, the Bolsheviks would never have been able to lead millions of workers and soldiers to the seizure of power without flexible tactics and methods and a correct orientation towards the mass organisations. The party’s progress in the Soviets has already been alluded to. But this does not tell the whole story. While the Bolshevik slogans were finding a ready echo among the workers, the latter still looked to the Soviets to carry these slogans into practice. The relationship was a dialectical one. Without the policies of the Bolshevik Party, the Soviets were useless. As a matter of fact, under the leadership of the right-wing reformists, they could be characterised as counter-revolutionary Soviets. But from another point of view, the policies of the Bolsheviks, without the Soviets, would not necessarily have won the ear of the masses, who still had profound illusions in those organisations which they had built themselves, and to which they had become accustomed to look for a solution to their problems. The ideas of Bolshevism only acquired an irresistible force when they were linked in the minds of the masses with the organisations to which they had given their allegiance – the Soviets.
The Seizure of Power
The hour of decisive action had arrived. By this time, the rank-and-file Bolshevik workers were themselves growing impatient at the lack of decisive action from the top. On 19 October (1 November), at a secret meeting of the amplified CC, Lenin again read out a written statement on the need for an immediate insurrection. With only two votes against – Kamenev and Zinoviev – it was decided that the only way to save the revolution from destruction was an armed uprising. Convinced that an insurrection would be disastrous for the party and the revolution, Lenin’s two old comrades-in-arms opened up a frantic campaign to stop it. On 18 October, they went to the extreme of publishing an article in a non-party paper, Gorky’s Novaya Zhizn’, which publicly opposed the organising of an insurrection as “an act of desperation” which would bring “the most ruinous consequences for the party, for the proletariat, for the fate of the revolution”. Significantly, the letter, which appeared under Kamenev’s signature, claimed to speak not only in the name of two members of the CC, but of a large number of (unnamed) “party practical workers”:
Not only myself and Comrade Zinoviev, but a number of practical party comrades think that to take upon ourselves the initiative to mount an armed uprising at the present time, under the present correlation of social forces, independently of the Soviet Congress, and a few days before it, would be an inadmissible step, disastrous for the proletariat. (Protokoly Tsentral’nogo Komitera RSDRP b, p. 116.)
This was, to put it mildly, a most serious breach of discipline. In presenting their arguments against the armed uprising, Kamenev and Zinoviev had given away to the enemy key party decisions on the insurrection, which were clearly meant to be top secret. Furious at this action, Lenin, in an uncharacteristic action, wrote an angry letter to the CC denouncing Kamenev and Zinoviev as strike-breakers and demanding their expulsion from the party. (See LCW, Letter to the CC of the RSDLP(B), vol. 26, pp. 223-27.) In fact, the Central Committee did not carry out Lenin’s proposal. Kamenev (but not Zinoviev) resigned from the CC, and both men were forbidden to make any further statements contrary to CC decisions. But they were neither expelled nor asked to recant their actions. The day of Stalinist confessions and forced recantations had not yet arrived. Despite the serious nature of their misdemeanour, it was not held against them. The day after the insurrection, Kamenev and Zinoviev presented themselves at the Bolshevik HQ and were given responsible positions in the party and the Soviet state.
The Kamenev-Zinoviev affair did not do lasting damage. The tide was already flowing strongly in the direction of an insurrection. In such conditions, the mistakes of the revolutionaries can normally be rectified by an intelligent leadership that keeps its head. But the converse is true in the camp of reaction. Beset with problems on all sides, trapped in a welter of contradictions, the politicians who yesterday could do no wrong, suddenly find they can do nothing right. That is the explanation of the oft-repeated comments about the ‘incapacity’, ‘obstinacy’, and ‘stupidity’ of Kerensky, Tsar Nicholas, King Louis, Marie Antoinette and Charles I, and a long list of other, similar figures. The ancient Greeks used to say: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” But, on closer observation, this madness is rooted in the objective situation. A doomed social system results in a regime of crisis. In such regimes, the options are limited and the scope for error is multiplied a thousandfold. Given a favourable historical conjuncture, even fools and mediocrities can rule successfully (and frequently do). But when a regime and a social system is sick unto death, the talents of even the most able minister will not necessarily be enough to save it. Such regimes are inevitably riven with internal crises and splits at the top. One section of the ruling class tries to stave off disaster through concessions, while another tries to halt the rising tide of revolt by repression. The result is the appearance (and reality) of vacillation and incompetence. All of which does not mean that the quality of the revolutionary leadership is not important. Even the most favourable circumstances can be thrown away in wars and revolutions. Had Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin stood at the head of the Bolshevik Party instead of Lenin and Trotsky, the opportunity would undoubtedly have been thrown away. Then all those clever historians who now pontificate on the stupidity of Kerensky and Nicholas for not doing this or that would be writing their doctoral theses on how intelligent and far-sighted they were, and how utopian were Lenin and Trotsky for imagining that the workers could have assumed power.
Accidents can certainly play a role in history, including mistakes, and a regime that is poised on the brink of an abyss is highly prone to making mistakes. The Provisional Government committed a first-class error in demanding the dispatch of two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. This was a clumsy attempt to weaken the revolutionary garrison in the capital, but instead it was a godsend to the Bolsheviks, for two reasons. Firstly, it caused a wave of indignation in the barracks, pushing even the most backward layers towards the Bolsheviks. Even those regiments that had participated in suppressing the July demonstrations passed resolutions condemning the Provisional Government and calling on the Soviets to take power. Secondly, it showed that the government was preparing to go onto the offensive against Red Petrograd. The revolution was entitled to take action in its own self-defence. This was something that every worker and soldier could understand. And it silenced the waverers in the ranks of the Bolsheviks. Even the reformist leaders, in spite of themselves, were being forced into semi-opposition to the government.
The Soviet Executive itself was forced to refuse to give its signature to this demand. The Bolsheviks led the agitation against it, and demanded the setting up of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, an official Soviet body which soon acquired enormous power and became practically the cutting edge of the October Revolution. The MRC appointed commissars to every store and arms depot without opposition. From then on, no arms could be moved without the permission of the Committee. Trotsky’s order to the Sestroretsky Small Arms factory for the issue of 5,000 rifles to the Red Guard provoked something like panic in bourgeois circles, which raised a hue and cry about the Bolsheviks massacring the bourgeois; but the rifles were issued anyway. Thus, the preparations for the insurrection were taking place under the very noses of the authorities who were powerless to prevent them.
Yet the number of Red Guards in Petrograd was very small. Estimates vary from 23,000 to as few as 12,000. Such a small force could never have defeated the full might of the old state apparatus. But the essence of the matter was the fact that the political work of the Bolsheviks in the nine months prior to October had succeeded in winning over the masses, and thereby also the decisive sections of the army. As the leading figure of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, Trotsky was personally responsible for winning over the Petrograd garrison, as Marcel Liebman points out:
On 23 October the leaders of the insurrection learned that the garrison of the fortress refused to recognise the authority of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Antonov-Ovseyenko proposed to send in a revolutionary battalion to disarm the garrison and take its place. Trotsky, however, urged that, instead of this risky operation, a more typically Bolshevik and socialist method be employed, that of political agitation. He went in person to the fortress, called a general meeting of the soldiers, addressed them, won them over, and persuaded them to pass a resolution announcing their readiness to overthrow the Provisional Government.
While the military preparation of the rising left much to be desired, its political preparation, during the last few days and hours before it began, was intense and exemplary. The regiments stationed in the capital rallied to the insurrection after listening to fiery speeches by Bolshevik delegates; the great meeting halls of Petrograd, such as the Modern Circus, were never empty, and Bolshevik speakers (Trotsky outstandingly) used them to maintain or revive the revolutionary ardour of the workers, sailors, and soldiers. The whole of October was, in Petrograd and in the provinces alike, a period of ceaseless political activity: the Soviets of the various regions assembled in conferences and congresses; the Bolshevik Party, which had been obliged to postpone an extraordinary congress fixed for the end of the month, did the same. In October 1917 the permanent revolution took concrete form in a permanent debate. And if the masses took no direct part in the insurrection, this was, in the last analysis, because there was no need for them to do so. Their rallying to the Bolsheviks’ policy had been able to find other means of expression, appropriate to the proletarian and democratic character of the enterprise, and to socialist tradition. (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, pp. 179-80.)
It seems a paradox that, compared to all the preparatory work that went on before, the actual seizure of power seems almost like an afterthought. In his monumental work, The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky describes in detail the ease in which Petrograd was taken. The peaceful nature of the revolution was ensured by the fact that the Bolsheviks, under Trotsky’s leadership, had already won over the Petrograd garrison. In the chapter “The Conquest of the Capital”, he explains the manner in which the workers took control of the key Peter and Paul fortress:
All the troops of the fortress garrison accepted the arrest of the commandant with complete satisfaction, but the bicycle men bore themselves evasively. What lay concealed behind their sulky silence: a hidden hostility or the last waverings? “We decided to hold a special meeting for the bicycle men,” writes Blagonravov, “and invite our best agitational forces, and above all Trotsky, who had enormous authority and influence over the soldier masses.” At four o’clock in the afternoon the whole battalion met in the neighbouring building of the Cirque Moderne. As governmental opponent, Quartermaster-General Poradelov, considered to be a Social-Revolutionary, took the floor. His objections were so cautious as to seem equivocal; and so much the more destructive was the attack of the Committee’s representatives. This supplementary oratorical battle for the Peter and Paul fortress ended as might have been foreseen: by all voices except thirty the battalion supported the resolution of Trotsky. One more of the potential bloody conflicts was settled before the fighting and without bloodshed. That was the October insurrection. Such was its style. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, pp. 211-12, my emphasis.)
From the beginning Lenin insisted that the insurrection must take place on the basis of the mass movement. Shortly before the October Revolution he wrote that the “insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class… Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people”. (LCW, Marxism and Insurrection, vol. 26, p. 22.)
Was October a Coup?
Bourgeois critics of Bolshevism frequently describe the October Revolution as a coup. That argument is false to the core. The revolution took place over nine months, during which the Bolshevik Party, using the most democratic means, won over the decisive majority of the workers and poor peasants. The fact that they succeeded so easily in overcoming the resistance of the Kerensky forces can only be explained by this fact. Moreover, as we shall see, there is no way that the Bolsheviks could have held onto power, without the support of the overwhelming majority of society. At every stage, the decisive role was played by the active intervention of the masses. This is what set its stamp on the whole process. The ruling class and its political and military representatives could only grind their teeth, but were powerless to prevent power from slipping from their hands. True, they were involved in constant conspiracies against the revolution, including the armed uprising of General Kornilov, which aimed at overthrowing Kerensky and instituting a military dictatorship, but all of this foundered on the movement of the masses.
The fact that the masses supported the Bolsheviks was accepted by everyone at the time, including the staunchest enemies of the revolution. Naturally, they put this down to all kinds of malign influences, ‘demagogy’, the immaturity of the workers and peasants, their supposed ignorance, and all the rest of the arguments which are essentially directed against democracy itself. How it came about that the masses only became ignorant and immature when they ceased to support the Provisional Government must be one of the greatest mysteries since Saint Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus. But if we leave aside the obvious motivation of spitefulness, malice, and impotent rage, we can see that the following passage from a right-wing paper constitutes a valuable admission that the Bolsheviks indeed enjoyed the support of the masses. On 28 October, Russkaya Volya wrote the following:
“What are the chances of Bolshevik success? It is difficult to answer that question, for their principal support is the… ignorance of the popular masses. They speculate on it, they work upon it by a demagogy which nothing can stop.” (Quoted in J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 298, my emphasis.)
It is impossible to understand what happened in 1917 without seeing the fundamental role of the masses. The same is true of the French Revolution of 1789–94, a fact which historians frequently fail to grasp (there are exceptions, notably the anarchist Kropotkin, and, in our own times, George Rudé). But here for the first time in history, if we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, the working class actually succeeded in taking power and at least beginning the socialist transformation of society. That is precisely why the enemies of socialism are compelled to lie about the October Revolution and slander it. They cannot forgive Lenin and the Bolsheviks for having succeeded in leading the first successful socialist revolution, for proving that such a thing is possible, and therefore pointing the way for future generations. Such a precedent is dangerous! It is therefore necessary to ‘prove’ (with the assistance of the usual crew of ‘objective’ academics) that this was all a very bad business, and must not be repeated.
The claim that the October Revolution was only a coup is often justified by pointing to the relatively small numbers actually involved in the insurrection itself. This apparently profound argument does not resist the slightest scrutiny. In the first place, it confuses the armed insurrection with the revolution, that is to say, it confuses the part with the whole. In reality, the insurrection is only a part of the revolution – a very important part, it is true. Trotsky likens it to the crest of a wave. As a matter of fact, the amount of fighting that took place in Petrograd was very small. One can say that it was bloodless. The reason for this was that nine-tenths of the tasks were already accomplished beforehand, by winning over the decisive majority of the workers and soldiers. It was still necessary to use armed force to overcome the resistance of the old order. No ruling class has ever surrendered power without a fight. But resistance was minimal. The government collapsed like a house of cards, because nobody was prepared to defend it.
In Moscow, mainly because of the mistakes of the local Bolsheviks, who did not act with sufficient energy, the counter-revolutionary Junkers initially went onto the offensive and carried out a massacre. Despite this, incredibly, they were allowed to go free on giving their word that they would not participate in any further violent acts against the Soviet power. This kind of thing was quite typical of the early days of the revolution, characterised by a certain naïvety on the part of the masses, who had yet to understand what terrible violence the defenders of the old order were capable. Far from being a bloodthirsty regime of terror, the revolution was an extraordinarily benign affair – until the counter-revolution showed its real nature. The White General Krasnov was one of the first to lead an uprising against the Bolsheviks at the head of the Cossacks. He was defeated by the Red Guards and handed over by his own Cossacks, but again was released on parole. Of this Victor Serge writes correctly:
The revolution made the mistake of showing magnanimity to the leader of the Cossack attack. He should have been shot on the spot. At the end of a few days he recovered his liberty, after giving his word of honour never to take up arms again against the revolution. But what value can promises of honour have towards enemies of fatherland and property? He was to go off to put the Don region to fire and the sword. (V. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, p. 87.)
Do the relatively small numbers involved in the actual fighting mean that the October overturn was a coup? There are many similarities between the class war and war between nations. In the latter too, only a very small proportion of the population are in the armed forces. And only a small minority of the army is at the front. Of the latter, even in the course of a major battle, only a minority of the soldiers are normally engaged in fighting at any given time. Experienced soldiers know that a lot of time is spent waiting in idleness, even during a battle. Very often the reserves are never called into action. But without the reserves, no responsible general would order an advance. Moreover, it is not possible to wage war successfully without the wholehearted support of the population at home, even though they do not directly participate in the fighting. This lesson was carved on the nose of the Pentagon in the latter stages of the Vietnam war.
The awakening of the masses, their active participation, their initiative and creative power, lies at the heart of every great revolution. It was displayed in a truly spectacular fashion in the nine months that separated the February from the October Revolution. Time and time again, in February, in May, in June, in July, in September, the masses moved to transform society. If they did not immediately succeed, that was not for lack of trying, but because every time they were thrown back by their leaders, who stubbornly refused to take the power when it was presented to them on a plate. How many times since then have we seen the same thing? In Germany in 1918, 1920, and 1923; in Britain in 1926 and 1945; in Spain in 1936; in France in 1936 and again in 1968; in Portugal in 1974–75; in Italy in 1919–20, in 1943 and in 1969, and throughout the 1970s; in Pakistan in 1968–69; in Chile in 1970–73, and in many other countries throughout the world. In every case, after the leadership has thrown away the possibility of changing society even by peaceful means and prepared the victory of reaction, the same cynics wheel out the same tired old arguments: that the objective situation was not ripe; that the balance of forces was unfavourable; that the masses were not ready; that the state was too strong, and so on and so forth. The blame for defeat is always placed at the feet of the soldiers who fought, but never on the generals who refused to lead. And if, instead of Lenin and Trotsky, the leadership of the Bolshevik Party had been in the hands of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, these same ladies and gentlemen would now be writing, with an impressive battery of facts, how the Russian Revolution was doomed to defeat from the beginning, on account of the hopelessness of the objective situation, the unfavourable class balance of forces, and the ‘immaturity’ of the masses.
Actually, the masses displayed the greatest maturity and initiative, as they do in every revolution. The awakening of the masses, their high level of consciousness, their newly found pride in themselves as thinking human beings is manifested in a thousand ways. It is best revealed, not by dry statistics, but precisely by anecdotes which bring the statistics to life, like the one cited by that most perceptive observer of the Russian Revolution, John Reed:
All around them great Russia was in travail, bearing a new world. The servants one used to treat like animals and pay next to nothing, were getting independent. A pair of shoes cost more than 100 roubles, and as wages averaged about 35 roubles a month the servants refused to stand in queue and wear out their shoes. But more than that. In the new Russia every man and woman could vote; there were working-class newspapers, saying new and startling things; there were the Soviets; and there were the Unions. The izvoshchiki (cab drivers) had a Union; they were also represented in the Petrograd Soviet. The waiters and hotel servants were organised, and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read “No tips taken here” or, “Just because a man has to make his living waiting on table is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip”. (J. Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, p. 14.)
The argument that the Bolsheviks were able to take power without the masses (a coup) is usually linked to the idea that power was seized, not by the working class, but by a party. Again, this argument is entirely false. Without organisation – the trade unions and the party – the working class is only raw material for exploitation. This was already pointed out by Marx long ago. True, the proletariat possesses enormous power. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines, without its permission. But without organisation, this power remains as just potential. In the same way, steam is a colossal force, but without a piston box, it will be harmlessly dissipated into the air. In order that the strength of the working class should cease to be a mere potential and become a reality, it must be organised and concentrated in a single point. This can only be done through a political party with a courageous and far-sighted leadership and a correct programme. The Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, was such a party. Basing themselves on the magnificent movement of the masses, they gave it form, purpose and a voice. That is its cardinal sin from the standpoint of the ruling class and its echoes in the labour movement. That is what lies behind their hatred and loathing of Bolshevism, their vitriol and spiteful attitude towards it, which completely conditions their attitude even three generations later.
Far from moving behind the backs of the masses, the Bolsheviks were the party that gave a conscious expression to the strivings of the working class to change society. As a matter of fact, throughout the course of 1917, if anything, the party often lagged behind the revolutionary mood of the masses, a fact that was quickly grasped by Lenin, and which is clear from countless sources, like the following extract from the memoirs of a prominent Bolshevik activist, the sailor Raskolnikov, who recalls a mass meeting of soldiers which he addressed shortly before the insurrection:
I was amazed at the militant mood of revolutionary impatience I found at this meeting. I felt that every one of these thousands of soldiers and workers was ready at any moment to take to the streets, arms in hand. Their ebullient feelings, their seething hatred of the Provisional Government was not at all disposed towards passivity. Only at Kronstadt, on the eve of the July affair, had I observed a similar ferment of revolutionary passion yearning for action. This still further strengthened my profound conviction that the cause of the proletarian revolution was on the right road. (F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, p. 266.)
It is necessary to add that at every stage the Bolsheviks always had before them the perspective of the international revolution. They never believed that they could hold power in Russia alone. This burning spirit of internationalism runs like a red thread through all the writings and speeches of Lenin. As late as 24 October, Lenin wrote to the party leaders an impassioned call to action:
With all my might, I urge comrades to realise that everything now hangs by a thread; that we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by conferences or congresses (even congresses of Soviets), but exclusively by peoples, by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people. (LCW, Letter to the Central Committee Members, vol. 26, p. 234.)
The Triumph of Bolshevism
The actual seizure of power passed off so smoothly that many did not realise it had taken place. For this reason, the enemies of the October Revolution present it as a coup. In fact, there are two reasons why it went so smoothly – one technical, the other political. The technical preparations for the final offensive were meticulously carried out by the Military Revolutionary Committee under the leadership of Trotsky. The basic rule, as always in warfare, was to concentrate, at the decisive moment and at the decisive point, an overwhelming superiority of force, and then strike hard. But this did not exhaust the question of tactics in the insurrection. The element of surprise and of manoeuvring to deceive the enemy as to the real intentions of the revolutionaries played a role here, as in any other kind of military operation. Every step was presented as a defensive move, but in practice, the character of the insurrection was necessarily offensive, moving swiftly to take one position after another, taking the enemy unawares and off guard.
But the real reason why the insurrection was carried off so quickly and almost painlessly was neither military nor technical, but political. Nine-tenths of the work of the insurrection had already been accomplished beforehand – by winning a clear majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. In the moment of truth, the Provisional Government, like the tsarist regime in February, had no one to defend it. The real position at the moment of the insurrection is shown by the statements of one of the main players – Kerensky. In an extract pregnant with unconscious irony, he writes:
The night of 24-25 October was a time of tense expectation. We were waiting for troops to arrive from the front. They had been summoned by me in good time and were due in Petrograd on the morning of 25 October. But instead of the troops, all we got were telegrams and telephone messages saying that the railways were being sabotaged.
By morning (25 October) the troops had not yet arrived. The central telephone exchange, post office, and most of the government offices were occupied by detachments of Red Guards. The building that housed the Council of the Republic, which only the day before had been the scene of an endless and stupid discussion, had also been occupied by Red sentries. (A. Kerensky, Memoirs, p. 437.)
The same Kerensky who had earlier boasted to the British ambassador that he was just waiting for the Bolsheviks to make a move, in order to put them down, now found himself with no troops to do the job and was obliged to flee Petrograd in a car graciously lent by the American embassy.
This is not the place to repeat the history of the insurrection, which is sufficiently well known from the writings of John Reed and Leon Trotsky. What is astonishing about the October Revolution is the degree to which it was played out in the full glare of public attention. If people were not aware that the Bolsheviks intended to take power, then the public declarations of Kamenev and Zinoviev would soon have alerted them to the fact. The French paper Entente, published in Petrograd on 15 November, one week after the revolution, commented:
“The Government of Kerensky discusses and hesitates. The Government of Lenin and Trotsky attacks and acts.
“This last is called a Government of Conspirators, but that is wrong. Government of usurpers, yes, like all revolutionary Governments which triumph over their adversaries. Conspirators – no!
“No! They did not conspire. On the contrary, openly, audaciously, without mincing words, without dissimulating their intentions, they multiplied their agitation, intensified their propaganda in the factories, the barracks, at the Front, in the country, everywhere, even fixing in advance the date of their taking up arms, the date of their seizure of the power…
“They – conspirators? Never…” (Quoted by J. Reed in Ten Days That Shook the World, p. 107.)
Towards the evening of 24 October, groups of Red Guards began to occupy the print shops of the bourgeois press, where they printed large numbers of revolutionary proclamations as well as Bolshevik papers like Rabochy Put’ and Soldat. Soldiers ordered to attack the print shops refused to obey orders. This was the general picture in Petrograd. Resistance was practically non-existent. As sleepy delegates to the Congress watched from doorways – some with alarm, others with expectation – detachments of soldiers and sailors departed from the Smolny Palace to key points of the city. By one o’clock in the morning, they had occupied the telegraph agency. Half an hour later, the post office was taken. At five o’clock, the telephone exchange followed. By ten o’clock in the morning, a cordon was thrown around the Winter Palace, where some resistance was anticipated. In point of fact, it fell, not with a bang, but a whimper.
The October insurrection merely legitimised what was a self-evident reality. Everyone knew that the Bolsheviks and their allies would have a decisive majority at the Congress of Soviets. The decision was therefore made that the insurrection should coincide with the opening of the Congress. The formal aspect here quite clearly had to take second place to the exigencies of a military operation. The notion that the question of an armed uprising should be determined by the result of a public debate in the Congress is as ludicrous as would be the demand that the plans for battle should be publicly debated in parliament in time of war. Anyone who demanded such a thing would undoubtedly be branded a traitor and probably locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane. Yet such considerations do not prevent the critics of October from complaining that Lenin and Trotsky did not wait for the formal approval of the Congress of Soviets before launching the offensive. Such arguments are without a shred of validity. The opinion of the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers was already well known: that the Soviets should take power. That question had been settled in advance, and the Congress simply put a stamp on it. Once this central question was resolved, the issue of when and how the rising should be carried out – a purely technical and military decision – had to be determined by the appropriate bodies, in this case the Military Revolutionary Committee, according to the rules, not of formal democracy, but of war.
At 2.35 p.m., Trotsky opened an emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet. Stepping up to the tribune, he shouted the words everyone had been waiting for:
On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists! Long live the Military Revolutionary Committee!
One after another, he listed the conquests of the insurrection, pausing only to explain the situation of the Winter Palace:
The Winter Palace has not been taken, but its fate will be decided momentarily… In the history of the revolutionary movement I know of no other examples in which such huge masses were involved and which developed so bloodlessly. The power of the Provisional Government headed by Kerensky, was dead and awaited the blow of the broom of history which had to sweep it away… The population slept peacefully and did not know that at this time one power was replaced by another. (Quoted in A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 278.)
At that point, Lenin entered the hall, still disguised as a workman. In the middle of his speech, Trotsky paused and turned to the man to whom he was now completely united as a comrade-in-arms. All the differences of the past forgotten in the heat of struggle. “Long live Comrade Lenin, back with us again,” were Trotsky’s words as he ceded the speakers’ platform to Lenin, who now addressed the delegates for the first time. In his historic speech to the Congress of Soviets on 25 October, 1917, he said:
Comrades, the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, about the necessity of which the Bolsheviks have always spoken, has been accomplished.
What is the significance of this workers’ and peasants’ revolution? Its significance is, first of all, that we shall have a Soviet government, our own organ of power, in which the bourgeoisie will have no share whatsoever. The oppressed masses will themselves create a power. The old state apparatus will be shattered to its foundations and a new administrative apparatus set up in the form of the Soviet organisations.
From now on, a new phase in the history of Russia begins, and this, the third Russian Revolution, should in the end lead to the victory of socialism.
One of our urgent tasks is to put an immediate end to the war. It is clear to everybody that in order to end this war, which is closely bound up with the present capitalist system, capital itself must be fought.
We shall be helped in this by the world working-class movement, which is already beginning to develop in Italy, Britain and Germany.
The proposal we make to international democracy for a just and immediate peace will everywhere awaken an ardent response among the international proletarian masses. All the secret treaties must be immediately published in order to strengthen the confidence of the proletariat.
Within Russia a huge section of the peasantry have said that they have played long enough with the capitalists, and will now march with the workers. A single decree putting an end to landed proprietorship will win us the confidence of the peasants. The peasants will understand that the salvation of the peasantry lies only in an alliance with the workers. We shall institute genuine workers’ control over production.
We have now learned to make a concerted effort. The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organisation, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.
We must now set about building a proletarian socialist state in Russia.
Long live the world socialist revolution! (stormy applause.) (LCW, Meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers Deputies, 25 October (7 November), 1917, vol. 26, pp. 239-40.)
The Struggle at the Congress
To all intents and purposes, the insurrection had triumphed. The only goal that had not yet been achieved was the taking of the Winter Palace, which remained in the hands of forces loyal to the government. Lenin, who had hoped that the uprising would all be over before the opening of the Congress of Soviets, displayed his impatience at the delay, which was caused by the inexperience of the insurrectionists. The political preparations for the uprising had been carried out with far greater professionalism than the technical side, which was far from perfect. There were many organisational defects. Troops arrived late because a locomotive had burst its pipes, the shells for the assault cannon proved to be the wrong size, they could not find a red lantern to signal the start of the attack, and so on. But in the end, none of this was decisive. Such anecdotes belong to the category of historical accidents. What was decisive was the winning over of the masses which left the Provisional Government isolated and defenceless in the moment of truth. Thus, although there were originally 3,000 defenders inside the Winter Palace, they just melted away in the course of the night. The real situation was understood by the commanding officers inside. A council of war was convened, at which Admiral Verderevsky made the most pertinent observation: “I don’t know why this session was called,” he said. “We have no tangible military force and consequently are incapable of taking any action whatever.”
The taking of the Winter Palace was a bloodless affair, more akin to a police operation. When warning shots were fired from the cruiser Aurora, the garrison simply melted away into the night. The Right SR Minister of Agriculture, Semyon Maslov, rang the Duma in a state of despair:
The democracy sent us into the Provisional Government; we didn’t want the appointments, but we went. Yet now, when tragedy has struck, when we are being shot, we are not supported by anyone. (A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 284 and p. 290, my emphasis.)
When the assault was finally launched, there was no resistance. At about 2 a.m., while the tired and demoralised members of the Provisional Government waited around the table, the door burst open and, in the words of one of those present:
A little man flew into the room, like a chip tossed by a wave, under the pressure of the mob which poured in and spread at once, like water filling all corners of the room.
The little man was Antonov-Ovseyenko of the Military Revolutionary Committee. “The Provisional Government is here – what do you want?” asked the Minister Konovalov. “You are all under arrest,” came the peremptory reply.
The start of the Congress of Soviets had been scheduled for 2 p.m., but was delayed, finally opening its doors at 10.40 p.m., while the siege of the Winter Palace was still in progress. The debates were occasionally punctuated by the sound of gunfire. Inside the Congress, a dramatic scene was being played out.
It had been a momentous session. In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee Trotsky had declared that the Provisional Government no longer existed.
“The characteristic of bourgeois governments,” he said, “is to deceive the people. We, the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, are going to try an experiment unique in history; we are going to found a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers, and peasants.”
The voting strength at the Congress gave the Bolsheviks and their Left SR allies a clear majority. Out of a total of 670 delegates, there were 300 Bolsheviks, 193 SRs – of whom more than half were Lefts – and 82 Mensheviks – of whom 14 were Internationalists. As we have seen, the Bolsheviks had a crushing domination in the key industrial centres in the north and west. And their support was still growing. The congress opened with the election of the Soviet presidium. The Bolsheviks presented a joint slate with the Left SRs and Menshevik Internationalists. The result was: 14 Bolsheviks, 7 SRs, and four Mensheviks. However, the latter refused to take the seats allocated to them. The overwhelming majority of the Congress voted for the formation of a Soviet government.
The indignation of the Mensheviks and SRs knew no bounds. When Trotsky announced that the insurrection had triumphed, that troops loyal to the Provisional Government were advancing against Petrograd, and that a delegation must be sent to them to tell them the truth, there were howls of “You are anticipating the will of the Congress of Soviets!” But the time for formal niceties was long past. Trotsky answered coldly: “The will of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets has been anticipated by the rising of the Petrograd workers and soldiers.”
The Mensheviks and SRs were not alone in their opposition to the uprising. Even at this late hour, the Bolshevik Conciliators were still against taking power. John Reed reports a momentary encounter with Ryazanov, the vice chairman of the trade unions, “looking black and biting his grey beard. ‘It’s insane! Insane!’ he shouted. ‘The European working class won’t move! All Russia – He waved his hand distractedly and ran off.” Martov, now a very sick man, maintained his vacillations right to the end. Lenin’s hopes that he would at last find his way to the revolutionary camp proved futile. Martov insisted on the formation of a coalition government with the right-wing socialist leaders “in order to prevent civil war”. This proposal would, in effect, have nullified the insurrection and put the clock back to where it had been before. Such an outcome was unthinkable. Lenin and Trotsky were both against it, but the conciliators were in favour. On behalf of the Bolshevik contingent, Lunacharsky announced that he had nothing against the proposal, which was actually passed. But the Mensheviks immediately revealed the complete hollowness of the proposal by denouncing the overthrow of the Provisional Government, and walking out of the Congress. As they walked out, in the midst of jeers and whistles from the delegates, Trotsky’s voice thundered after them:
All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki, Socialist Revolutionaries, Bund – let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history! (J. Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, pp. 122-23, p. 123 and p. 131.)
The victory of the insurrection was not the final episode of the Bolshevik Revolution. The forces of reaction rallied and attempted a counter-attack which was defeated. Then a bloody civil war was unleashed against the Bolsheviks that lasted another four years. In this conflict the Soviet power was confronted with the might of world imperialism in the shape of 21 foreign armies of intervention. At one point, all the territory that remained in the hands of the Bolsheviks was the area around Moscow and Petrograd – approximately equivalent to the old Muscovy. Yet one by one the enemies of the revolution were thrown back. From the shattered remnants of the old tsarist army Trotsky fashioned a new proletarian force, the Red Army, which astonished the world with its victories. The heroism, organisation, and discipline of the Red Army were the key to victory, but it could never have succeeded without the internationalist appeal of the Bolshevik Revolution. Through the medium of the Communist International, Lenin and Trotsky issued an appeal to the workers of the world, which was taken up with enthusiasm. The British dockers refused to load arms ships bound to counter-revolutionary Poland. There were mutinies in every one of the armies dispatched against the Bolsheviks. Against all expectations, the Soviet power survived to show the world for the first time that it is possible to run society without private capitalists, bankers, and landowners. It is true that, under conditions of terrible economic and cultural backwardness, the Russian Revolution suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration. But not before it had provided a spectacular proof of the tremendous potential of a nationalised planned economy.
The historic ascent of humanity taken as a whole, may be summarised as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces – in nature, in society, in man himself. Critical and creative thought can boast of its greatest victories up to now in the struggle with nature. The physico-chemical sciences have already reached a point where man is clearly about to become master of matter. But social relations are still forming in the manner of the coral islands. Parliamentarism illumined only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave-dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October Revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1191.)
We will leave the final word to a great revolutionary who has too often been falsely portrayed as an implacable opponent of Lenin and Bolshevism. From her prison cell in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg greeted the October Revolution with the following words:
Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times. The determination with which, at the decisive moment, Lenin and his comrades offered the only solution which could advance things (‘all power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry’), transformed them almost overnight from a persecuted, slandered, outlawed minority whose leader had to hide like Marat in cellars, into the absolute master of the situation.
Moreover, the Bolsheviks immediately set as the aim of this seizure of power a complete, far-reaching revolutionary programme: not the safeguarding of bourgeois democracy, but a dictatorship of the proletariat for the purpose of realising socialism. Thereby they won for themselves the imperishable historic distinction of having for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct programme of practical politics.
Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which Western Social Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism.
Rosa Luxemburg’s final judgement on the Bolshevik Party can stand as the last word of the history of the greatest revolutionary party in history:
What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”
This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’. (R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, pp. 39-40 and p. 80.)
1 The oprichniki were the private bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible, the bloody ruler of 16th century Muscovy. They were notorious for their bloodthirsty activities.
2 The Istoriya, which describes the February rising, without the slightest foundation, as a purely Bolshevik affair, is at a loss to explain how the Mensheviks and SRs could be the principal beneficiaries!
3 Some authors give a lower estimate, probably basing themselves on Shlyapnikov. However, Shlyapnikov’s estimate is suspect, since he displays a resentful attitude to the Mezhraiontsy, presumably because of their reluctance to join the Bolsheviks before the February Revolution. The figure of about 4,000 mentioned by Trotsky in the History, is confirmed both by E.H. Carr in The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 102 and in a note to Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 601.
4 Louis Cavaignac was the French general who, as War Minister in the Provisional Government established by the French Revolution of February 1848, led the suppression of the Paris workers’ uprising in June of that year.
5 May in the new calendar. Schapiro is referring to the April Conference.
6 Liebman gives this figure. Schapiro, quoting different sources, puts it at 200,000.