111) The Turn of the Tide

Trotsky once remarked that theory is the superiority of foresight over astonishment. As Lenin had predicted, the revolution was given a powerful impetus by Russia’s military defeats. At the beginning of the war, Lenin was completely isolated. His views on the war were not even shared by many of his closest comrades. But now things were different. Finally, events were proving him right. The turning point was probably in April-June 1915. His letters begin to reflect a new confidence and optimism:

Events in Russia have completely endorsed our position, which the social-patriot donkeys (from Alexinsky to Chkheidze) have christened defeatism. The facts have proved that we are right!! The military reverses are helping to shake the foundations of tsarism, and facilitating an alliance of the revolutionary workers of Russia and other countries. People say: what will “you” do, if “you,” the revolutionaries, defeat tsarism? I reply: (1) our victory will fan the flames of the “Left” movement in Germany a hundredfold; (2) if “we” defeated tsarism completely, we would propose peace to all the belligerent powers on democratic terms and, if this were rejected, we would conduct a revolutionary war.595

The corruption of the regime was palpable at all levels, at the court, in the army, and in industry. There was a cozy relation between the government and the big arms manufactures.

The huge Putilov plant, for example, received 113 million rubles worth of orders for shells—far more than it could deliver on time—at a price six times higher than the average market price. Putilov used the cash to subsidize the loss-making parts of his business, including his own fabulous lifestyle, so that his company eventually went bankrupt and had to be sequestered by the state in 1916.596

No wonder Lenin wrote sarcastically in response to the tearful complaints of the pacifists: “War is a ‘terrible’ thing? Yes. But it is a terribly profitable thing.”597

The war brought rising prices, bread shortage, speculation, and blackmarketeering. Fabulous profits were made by the arms manufacturers. The unbearable conditions of the masses called forth a wave of strikes. In 1915 there were 1,063 strikes, 15 times more than in the second half of 1914 (i.e., the first six months of the war). The number of strikers reached 569,999—more than 15 times more. The strikes affected especially the big factories. The upswing in the strike movement began in April-June 1915. In these three months alone there were 440 strikes and 181,600 strikers, double the figures for the eight previous months of the war. The rising graph of the strike movement served notice on the regime that the patience of the working class was reaching its limits. A key role in this was played by the textile workers of Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Kostroma. They were the first to move.

In spite of everything, some victories were won. In July, the Bolsheviks managed to hold a conference of the Petrograd Party in Oranienbaum, with 50 delegates representing 500 members. This was a considerable achievement under the conditions. There was also a conference in Kiev. Gradually, contacts between the towns were improving. The shooting in Ivanovo-Voznesensk provided the basis for the call for a general political strike of textile workers. This began on August 8, and initially began with economic demands. On the night of August 10, 19 workers’ leaders were arrested. On the next day, more than 25,000 workers from 32 factories took part in a street demonstration. When the workers turned up at the jail to demand the release of their arrested comrades, the troops opened fire, killing 100 people and wounding another 40. Among the dead were members of the Bolshevik Party. But no amount of shooting could stop the movement. Like a hydra-headed monster, no sooner had the regime lopped off one head than two more grew in its place. Strikes broke out in other areas: in Petersburg, Tver’, Tula, Kharkov, Nizhny Novgovod, Yekaterinoslav, and other areas. The stormy outbreak of strikes announced the reawakening of the proletariat.

The strike curve continued its upwards course. From August to October 1915 there were officially 340 strikes, and 246,000 strikers. A key role in the movement was played by Bolshevik worker-activists, trained in the school of struggle in the period 1912–14. Thus, history does not pass in vain. Despite the war, despite the arrest and exile of the leadership, despite the disruption of the Party’s structures and the reduction of its organization to a minimum, despite everything, something remained. That “something” was the revolutionary consciousness imbibed by the proletariat from its earlier experiences and retained through its most active and developed layer, which had been biding its time patiently in the hope of better days. Now, sensing a change in the mood of the workers, these activists—a big majority of them Bolsheviks—once more came to the fore. The strikebreaking role of the defensists provoked a growing rejection on the factory floor. Workers at many factories carried resolutions demanding the recall of their representatives from the War Industry Committees.

The September strike in Petrograd involved 150,000 workers, protesting at the arrest of 30 Bolshevik workers from the Putilov works. There were also strikes in Moscow and elsewhere. The masses stirred and dimly remembered the old slogans which had not been heard in the factories, except in whispers, since that fateful summer of 1914. Now they were on everyone’s lips again—those slogans which became popularly known as Lenin’s “Three whales”: For a Democratic Republic! For the confiscation of all landed estates! For the eight-hour working day! And above all, in this bloody dance of death of the nations, For the international solidarity of the working class! Down with the war! And a curse on all those responsible for it!

In May 1915, the bourgeoisie moved to set up “War Industry Committees” (VPK), in part to try to get some control over the lucrative war industries, while simultaneously establishing their patriotic credentials as the would-be saviors of Russia, in the hope of winning concessions from the tsar. As part of this tactic, they attempted to involve the workers in the war effort and boost production.

“In May 1915,” reports Kerensky, “on the initiative of leading Moscow industrialists and businessmen, an All-Russian Trade and Industry Convention was held, without prior notification to the government. The main business of this meeting was the establishment of a Central War Industry Committee with a number of subsections. All industry was now being mobilized for the immediate dispatch of munitions, clothing, and equipment to the front. Everyone of importance in Russia became active in the cause.”598

In June 1915 a congress of these committees decided to set up “workers’ groups” in them. Here again we see the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. The Mensheviks again revived the idea of a “Labor Congress,” trying to work in “legal” conditions in wartime. More than anything else, this shows how far removed these “realistic” labor leaders were from reality. Under wartime conditions, the tsarist regime was even less likely to permit genuine organizations of the working class.

The Mensheviks and SRs supported participation in these committees, demagogically arguing that they represented “workers’ control” and could be used to defend the workers’ interests against capital. They played with the idea of soviets, conveniently overlooking the fact that real soviets are organs of struggle, not talking-shops that aim to bring about conciliation between the classes. As Lenin explained:

Soviets of Workers’ Deputies and similar institutions must be regarded as organs of insurrection, of revolutionary rule. It is only in connection with the development of a mass political strike and with an insurrection, and in the measure of the latter’s preparedness, development and success that such institutions can be of lasting value.

The Bolsheviks were radically opposed to participation in these committees, which were organizations of the bourgeoisie set up to help the imperialist war effort. Nevertheless, complicated tactical questions were involved here, which could not be reduced to a simply negative attitude. Under conditions where it was necessary to take advantage of each and every legal opening, it would be correct, Lenin explained, to participate in the first round of elections to these committees exclusively for the purpose of agitation and propaganda and to build the organization:

“We are opposed to participation in the war industries committees, which help persecute the imperialist and reactionary war,” he wrote. “We are in favor of utilizing the election campaign; for instance, we are for participation in the first stage of the elections for the sole purpose of agitation and organization.”599

The Petrograd Committee called on the workers to participate massively in the first round of elections, holding factory meetings where they should clearly and publicly explain the Party’s position and try to get elected in order to go to a citywide meeting. There they should read out a speech denouncing the war and call for a boycott of the War Industry Committees. In order to hold elections to the War Industry Committees, the regime was indeed compelled to call open mass meetings in the factories. Only factories of more than 500 were allowed to participate. The Bolsheviks, who had their main strength in the big factories, actively participated in them and the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks struggled for influence in these election campaigns, carrying their different message to the masses. Some Mensheviks were elected, but the main beneficiaries were the Bolsheviks. Lenin was delighted at the victory which he considered very important. After the success of the Bolsheviks in the election campaign, the bourgeois Gvozdev angrily demanded the holding of new elections. The Liquidators were only too pleased to go along with this.

The second round of elections was marked by a reign of police terror. The government was determined not to permit a repeat and took the precaution of arresting leading Bolsheviks. Under these conditions, the Bolsheviks—who were in a “left bloc” with the left SRs—went to the factory meetings to denounce the traitors and demonstratively walk out. There were protest meetings in a number of factories. After the experience in Petrograd, the government took no chances with the election in Moscow: there were massive police raids. Even so, the defensists’ campaign was not a success. Out of a total of 244 War Industry Committees, “workers’ groups” were only set up in 58—mostly in small, backward factories. In the main working class centers, the tactic of active boycott triumphed. The chief of the Moscow Okhrana wrote in a report:

Literally, nearly all (sic) the beginnings of this group suffer shipwreck because of the hostile attitude of the overwhelming majority of the workers, influenced by the Bolsheviks.600

Throughout the war, the Bolsheviks inside Russia were faced with extremely difficult conditions. By contrast, the right-wing Mensheviks (the “defensists”) enjoyed a privileged position because of their innate opportunism and their willingness to subordinate the workers’ interests to the bourgeoisie. Although the Bolsheviks had more support among the most active and conscious workers, the defensists had the advantage of their legal status. In addition to their representatives on the workers’ sections of the War Industry Committees, they had ample funds from their liberal friends, and possessed legal journals like Delo (The Cause) and Ekonomicheskoe Obozrenie (Economic Review). Their “Labor Group” even had premises on one of the main streets in Petersburg (the Liteiny) where they could meet freely and receive reports from the Duma from Chkheidze and Kerensky. These legal meetings were well attended, and the Bolsheviks used to attend them in order to expose the policies of the defensists—which, on at least one occasion, ended in the arrest of the unwelcome “guest.” Nevertheless, the tsarist authorities were suspicious of them, and eventually, patriotism notwithstanding, began to crack down on the Labor Group also.

These objective difficulties made it both necessary and correct to try to arrive at working agreements with other tendencies in the workers’ movement. They attempted to form a united front with those Social Democratic groups that defended an internationalist position. The Bolshevik bureau had on several occasions participated in negotiations with other tendencies in the Petrograd working class movement during the war, notably the Inter-District Committee (Mezhrayontsi) who, as Shlyapnikov states, were politically indistinguishable from the Bolsheviks, but who stubbornly clung to a “non-factional” position which kept them from uniting with the Bolsheviks.601 By December 1916, very close contacts already existed between the Bolsheviks and the Mezhrayontsi, who were finally persuaded by Trotsky to join the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917. As a matter of fact, there was always a large number of Social Democratic workers—both individuals and groups—who were not formally aligned with Bolsheviks or Mensheviks. The immense difficulties of the war years, the weakness of the party’s central organization, led to a situation where many local groups existed in isolation.

Similar groups of social democrats,” writes Shlyapnikov, “which had no permanent link with the overall city organization existed in large numbers in Petersburg. Several of these circles kept apart and isolated through fear of provocateurs.602

The attempt to form a united front was not confined to the Mezhrayontsi. There were also proposals from the Bolsheviks for a united front with left Mensheviks (the “initiative group”) and they also offered practical agreements to the non-defensist left, represented by Chkheidze, the leftward-leaning chairman of the Menshevik Duma fraction, and even Kerensky of the Duma Trudovik group. The latter at the time even called himself an internationalist and a supporter of Zimmerwald (!). However, they refused to break with the defensist right-reformists. They were besotted with the idea of parliamentary action and, above all, they feared a break with the liberal bourgeoisie. At bottom, all these elements feared the mass movement like the plague.

The attempt to secure practical agreements or episodic blocs for specific aims does not at all imply the shelving of differences. On the contrary. The prior condition for the united front tactic is complete freedom of criticism. Lenin treated with justified contempt the notion that unity means the mixing up of programs and banners. In his article The Defeat of Russia and the Revolutionary Crisis, written in November 1915, Lenin writes:

There is nothing more puerile, contemptible and harmful, than the idea current among revolutionary philistines, namely, that differences should be “forgotten” “in view” of the immediate common aim in the approaching revolution. People whom the experience of the 1905–14 decade has not taught the folly of this idea are hopeless from the revolutionary standpoint.603

Not playing at unity, but an open struggle for the leadership of the working class was the banner of Lenin.


595 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 8/23/1915, vol. 35, 204–5.

596 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 273.

597 LCW, May Day and the War, 1915, vol. 36, 325.

598 Kerensky, Memoirs, 136.

599 LCW, Several Theses, vol. 21, 401 and 402.

600 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 581.

601 See Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, 164.

602 Ibid., 152.

603 LCW, The Defeat of Russia and the Revolutionary Crisis, vol. 21, 379.

112) Crisis of Tsarism

A revolution breaks out when all the antagonisms of a society have reached their highest tension. But this makes the situation unbearable even for the classes of the old society—that is, those who are doomed to break up.604

The weakness of tsarist Russia, the corruption that gnawed at the entrails of the regime, was cruelly exposed. The military catastrophes, the rising cost of living, the profiteering and speculation, the rottenness of the court clique expressed themselves in a crisis of the regime. In May 1916 there were scattered disturbances among recruits in the provinces. Food riots began in the South and spread to the naval fortress of Kronstadt. By late autumn Petrograd was once more the scene of stormy social agitation and a massive strike wave. The military defeats, the bungling of the government, the whiff of corruption from the Rasputin regime, the rising prices and constant repression provoked a burning sense of anger and injustice in the very depths of society. By 1916, the strike wave reached new and unprecedented heights. A staggering 1,542 strikes involving up to 1,172,000 workers were recorded—much more than in 1905. No other country experienced such an explosion of strikes during the First World War. The workers advanced mainly economic demands, at first. But the number of political strikes steadily increased: in 1915, 216; in 1916, 273. And the number of participants increased likewise: in 1915, 156,900; in 1916, 310,300. By the autumn of 1916, the mood of discontent had reached threatening proportions.

The regime’s anxiety grew as the anniversary of Bloody Sunday approached. Repression and arrests were stepped up, especially in December 1915–January 1916. Despite a preemptive strike of the police, there were mass protest meetings on January 9, 1916, with 55 factories out in Petrograd alone, according to official figures. There were strikes in Moscow, Kharkov, Revel, Tver, and Yekaterinoslav. The metal workers—the heavy battalions of the proletariat—took over from the textile workers as the main force in the strike movement. More ominous for the regime was the commencement of fraternization at the front. News of mutinies in the army was now reaching the authorities—from Kharkov, Greece, and France. There were the beginnings of a peasant movement, giving notice of the explosive mood in the villages, especially among the poorest layers who bore the brunt of the war. Uprisings took place in Kazakhstan and Central Asia which lasted several months in the summer of 1916.

This was a decisive turning point. By October, 17, 45 factories were on strike, protesting against the high cost of living, the war, and the autocracy. In an ominous development, the troops turned against the police and supported the workers. The Cossacks, sent to restore order, refused to fire on the soldiers. Only with great difficulty did the authorities manage to get the soldiers to return to barracks that evening. For those with eyes to see, here were the unmistakable symptoms of a revolution in the advanced stages of gestation. Further strikes occurred later in October, culminating in a lockout, which was defeated by a general strike. In the whole of October, up to 250,000 Petrograd workers participated in political strikes.

The crisis of the regime was revealed by the assassination of Rasputin. The hideous reality of a drunken and debauched “Holy man” intriguing with a degenerate court clique and dictating to a superstitious tsarina, handing out favors and even deciding military policy, brought to a head the unbearable contradictions between different wings of the state. A section of the aristocracy resolved to eliminate Rasputin as a means of regenerating the regime and staving off imminent disaster. Since all attempts to remove him (including the offer of a bribe of 200,000 rubles in cash to return to Siberia) foundered on the opposition of the tsarina, the only solution was murder. The reactionary politician and bitter enemy of Rasputin, V.M. Purishkevich, hatched a plot, together with a clique of noblemen, to assassinate Rasputin and place the tsarina in a mental institution, a simple expedient, whereby the tsar, freed from the pernicious influence of the court camarilla, would be miraculously transformed into a model constitutional monarch!

Similar dreams have accompanied every absolute monarchy to the grave. The basic flaw in all of them is the same: that monarchy, especially of the absolute type, is organically inseparable from court camarillas. The Rasputin regime was merely a particularly poisonous example of this phenomenon. The details of the assassination of Rasputin, which combined the macabre with comic opera, are too well known to need much elaboration here. Topped up with a large dose of his favorite brand of sweet Madeira liberally laced with cyanide, shot several times, and finally knocked on the head, the Holy man was finally dispatched, his body weighed down with iron chains and dumped in the river Neva. His death was celebrated in champagne by dukes and field marshalls. The principal assassin, the Grand Duke Dimitri, was given a standing ovation at the Bolshoi Theater. But the tsar was not amused. Dimitri was exiled to Persia, and, contrary to all expectations, Nicholas was still more under the thumb of his grief-striken wife than before. Thus, the attempt to reform the monarchy by means of a surgical operation had the opposite effect to what was intended.

The idea of a palace revolution offered no solution for Russia. Things were too far gone. The intrigues and maneuvers at the top resembled the antics of a man dancing on the edge of a volcano. Meanwhile, society was in a state of constant and uncontrollable ferment. The intrigues at the top bore no relation to the sufferings of the masses which constantly worsened. While rich speculators and arms manufacturers got richer, the masses suffered from constantly rising prices. To pay its huge debts, the government resorted to printing rubles. The money supply increased eightfold between 1914 and 1917. Prices soared. Food became scarce and dear. In Moscow the price of rye—the basis of Russian black bread—rose 47 percent in the first two years of the war. In the same period, a pair of boots went up by 334 percent, and a box of matches by 500 percent. By November 1916, the food supply to the army and to the cities had reached a critical level. On the eve of the February Revolution, the average working woman in Petrograd had to spend around 40 hours a week queuing to get the basic necessities of life. In such circumstances, the antics at court could only provide a passing interest for the mass of workers and peasants, struggling for survival. But the whiff of corruption and decay that emanated from the regime served to deepen the sense of outrage, hatred, and contempt that was ripening in the depths of society. The regime was bankrupt in every respect, not just economically, but politically and morally as well.


604 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 97.

113) Change of Mood

As the war dragged on and the mood of the masses began to grow restive, the situation of the Party began to change, slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity. For the first time opportunities began to open up for the revolutionaries. The beginning of the war saw the revolutionary movement in the wilderness. For the first two years the possibilities were negligible. The arrest and trial of the Duma fraction removed one of the few remaining possibilities for legal activity. Those trade unions that were not banned were placed under strict police surveillance. Most workers’ cultural and educational centers were shut down. Those who went on strike were handed over to the police who usually made sure they were sent to the front with a letter that usually ensured they did not return. Most worker activists were in jail or in hiding. The Party’s forces were reduced to a minimum expression. The masses had their heads down. A few illegal papers were produced inside Russia, like the Petrograd Proletarsky Golos of which four issues appeared at long intervals.

According to the Istoriya,605 the Bolsheviks at this time had organizations in 29 towns and cities: Peterburg, Moscow, Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Makayevsk, Samara, Saratov, Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Odessa, Yekaterinodar, Baku, Tiflis, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Tula, Orekhovo, Zuyevo, Tver, Gomel, Vyazma, Revel, Narva, Yureva, Irkutsk, Zlataust, Yekaterinburg, and Orenburg. But it gives no details. It is possible that, at one time or another, small groups could have existed in all of these places and more. The Istoriya calculates that the Bolsheviks at different times would have had a presence in over 200 different places. This may well be an exaggeration. But, in any case, under the prevailing conditions, their existence would, in most instances, have been precarious and fleeting. Only the Latvian Social Democrats, with their tradition of tight organization, seem to have been able to produce a regular paper in the underground. The other papers had, at best, a fleeting existence. In the war years, 11 different illegal papers saw the light of day, but their sum total amounted to only 17 issues. The Letts, on the other hand, produced 26 issues, no less, in the Latvian language with an impressive run of 80,000 and, in addition, produced journals in Lithuanian and Estonian. But this was quite exceptional.

A report from the city of Tver gives us a glimpse of the kind of situation that must have been prevalent in most of the provincial party organizations:

A city committee was elected as early as the autumn meeting of local party workers in 1915, but it was only able to resume active work in March 1916 when a group of new party workers arrived to assist the ailing committee. Discussion-group activity was promptly set in motion but there was no coordination in the work for the lack of a center. The committee did not disband but did nothing. The strikes which broke out in the second half of April ended in a victory for the workers at two undertakings. The strike movement ended at the end of May with the rout of the organization. Over that period the organization had managed to issue three leaflets on the war, the War Industries Committees, and May Day. Work was resumed at the beginning of June. A new center was formed and a plan of work was drawn up (the main point lay in stepping up agitation). Work was made harder by the fact that no people remained at the center who were rich in knowledge and experience. Discussion-group work had not ceased even by September.

From these lines it is clear that the party organization in Tver only really began to function towards the end of 1915. Even then, it must have been very small (no figures for membership are given) and more of a discussion circle than anything else. Most of the members lacked the experience and political level to make much of an impact, and the very existence of the leading committee was tenuous. A similar picture emerges in a report from the Nizhni-Novgorod area. Here figures are given for membership (between 150 and 200). There were four circles active on the outskirts and a further 14 in the factory districts, with two committees in charge of the different areas. Here the work seems to have been on a sounder basis than in Tver. Even so, there was a “dreadful shortage of literature.”

As yet we have not had many issues of the central organ. The pamphlets On the War and On the High Cost of Living come out only in single copies and those are hard to get hold of. We haven’t even seen Kommunist. All the work in the organization, including purely propaganda work (there exists a college of propagandists of six members) is at present being undertaken exclusively by workers. The main shortcoming of the organization is the almost total lack of theoretically knowledgeable and experienced people. The local intellectual forces do not take close part in the work for a variety of reasons.606

The Kazan committee reports a demonstration of students against the war, but says nothing about its participation. On the other hand, the Kharkov organization claimed “some 120 members” paying dues regularly. But this was in Latvia where the degree of organization was much higher than elsewhere, as we have seen. The Kharkov organization even succeeded in producing its own hectographed weekly paper—Golos Sotsial Demokrata. The position of the central organization was weak in the extreme. The “apparatus” at the disposal of the CC Bureau in Petrograd consisted of the flat of a couple where the wife acted as the “custodian of the press” and the Bureau’s tiny archives. There were various rendezvous points in the city where comrades could pick up the party press—a hazardous occupation when the place was crawling with police agents and spies. Vadim (Tikhomirov) was in charge of the illegal shipment of literature from Finland to the provinces, and also its storage and distribution in Petrograd. For this, he organized a group of young women who travelled to Finland and delivered the hot material to designated addresses.

True, the mood of apathy and pessimism was gradually being dissipated. An increasing number of workers who had been party members before the war were rejoining. But the problems remained immense. The strongest organization was in St. Petersburg. The Moscow organization suffered from the lack of a serious leading center throughout the war and only picked up during the course of 1917 on the basis of the influx of fresh young comrades. Moscow also suffered a great deal from the activities of police provocation. A serious problem was the lack of finance, which prevented the Bolshevik center in Petersburg from supporting the organizations in the provinces. Only occasional visits were possible. Shlyapnikov recalls with some bitterness how former comrades with well-paid jobs were reluctant to donate to the underground party, though many of them later re-joined it. The bitter tone was understandable, considering the risks and hardships the underground activists were obliged to experience every day:

But we had to work under extremely tough conditions we proved able to group many active comrades around us. But owing to lack of resources we did not succeed in expanding the work very widely. We were very poor. From December 2, 1916, to February 1, 1917, only 1,117 rubles 50 kopeks flowed into the funds of the Central Committee Bureau. We had to carry out all work within these means. If we sent an organizer out to the provinces we could not guarantee him even one month’s support; consequently we had to rely upon the initiative of chance visits by comrades from different areas or strokes of luck for our contacts. The Bureau spent very little on maintaining its staff. The majority had their earnings but underground workers even in February 1917 could not receive more than 100 rubles a month. The supply of literature required a great deal of funds, but we were unable to assign very much to it.

No less difficult were conditions of personal existence. From the very first days of my arrival, when I at once became the object of intensive trailing by spies, it was plain to me that settling down with my own flat, a valid passport, and other such luxuries was, in such a situation, to court real disaster. To have any possibility of countering the stratagems of the agents I had to have as many lodgings as possible. Comrades helped me to find places, and I had a particular spot for each night. These were dispersed in various parts of Petersburg, including its extremities; for example, on the one hand, on the Grazhdanka and on the other, at the Galley Harbor and also in between them in the city center. My life was turning into a perpetual wandering. It was hard to write, read, and at times even to think as often when tired hospitable comrades engaged me with their political programs and enjoyable conversation deep into the night. You could survive like that for two or three months but my physical energy did not allow more.”607

The upswing in the workers’ movement, however, acted as a spur to the recovery of the Bolsheviks. The first signs of recovery were to be observed also in the provinces. In February and March 1916, in the Donets Basin, a major coal-producing area, the first leaflets appeared, calling on workers to organize, and repeating the slogans of the Bolsheviks. In early April, the first wartime strike broke out in the Donets coalfield, involving 20 neighborhoods with a total participation of some 50,000 miners. The signal for strike action came from the pit where the Bolshevik leaflets had appeared. In at least one pit, a strike committee was elected. Two companies of soldiers were dispatched to the coalfield, but the soldiers refused to take action against the strikers. Even the police showed reluctance to act. The attempt of management to divert the strike into anti-Semitic channels was roundly rebuffed by the workers. Finally, the authorities managed to “restore order” but only after four workers had been killed and 20 wounded. The strike was lost, but the mood of the workers was transformed. This fact was reflected in the growth of the revolutionary organization:

Simultaneously with the strike wave, strong political groups began to be formed, the cells rapidly gaining strength rather as if workers wanted to recover the precious time lost. They started to seek links between each other. This was now easy. During the strikes all these grouplets and cells had become acquainted with each other. At this juncture they all united to form the social democratic organizations of the Donets Basin, whose statutes and program were those of the RSDLP majority.

Thus, little by little, the Bolsheviks were reorganizing and growing:

In spite of ever mounting repression, mass arrests, and the loss of party workers, our illegal organization developed and strengthened. The most powerful illegal organization in Petersburg was our party’s Petersburg Committee which brought together some 3,000 members, but the majority of Petersburg workers could be regarded as sympathizing with its antiwar policy. Out of our party’s legal organizations there remained in existence only the Workers’ Group of the Insurance Council, which was also the all-Russian center of the hospital funds and its journal, Voprosy Strakhovaniya. The activity of these institutions was inhibited in the extreme and many members of the Insurance Group were in jail or exile.608

Despite the chronic shortcomings of the apparatus, from the end of July 1916 to March 1, 1917, local Bolshevik organizations produced more than 600 different leaflets with a total run of about two million printed in about 80 different towns and cities, familiarizing the mass of workers and soldiers with Bolshevik slogans. Despite the irregular and unstable nature of these illegal publications, they played a significant role in a situation where legal possibilities for getting Social Democratic ideas into print were practically nonexistent. Every legal opening had to be used, though these were limited in the extreme. The trade unions in Petrograd had been closed “for the duration,” although certain “professional associations” were permitted. In Moscow, unions were theoretically allowed. But the workers who participated in them could be prosecuted by the law. Under these circumstances, such openings as health insurance and friendly societies were important. The revolutionaries used them as best they could to maintain contacts with the masses, including the new layers of women and youth.


605 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 547.

606 Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, 181–82.

607 Ibid., 141.

608 Ibid., 163 and 164.

114) Work Among Women

Revolutionary social democratic work in Russia during the First World War faced enormous difficulties. The Party and the unions were illegal. But by 1915 the movement was recovering from the blows it received in the first months of the war. One area where it began to make important gains was among women, who were being drawn into the industrial work force in large numbers. By the outbreak of the war, women made up roughly one-third of industrial workers, and a still larger portion of those in the textile industry. This increased even further during the war as men were mobilized for military service. The situation of women worsened during the war as many became the sole support of their families and necessities became scarcer and more expensive. Women workers took part in many strikes and demonstrations against the economic hardships created by Russia’s involvement in the war.

Pitiful as the lot of the worker is, the status of the woman is far worse. In the factory, in the workshop, she works for a capitalist boss, at home—for the family.

Thousands of women sell their labor to capital; thousands drudge away at hired labor; thousands and hundreds of thousands suffer under the yoke of family and social oppression. And for the enormous majority of working women it seems this is the way it must be. But is it really true that the working woman cannot hope for a better future, and that fate has consigned her to an entire life of work and only work, without rest night and day?609

The preceding lines are from a leaflet entitled To the Working Women of Kiev, distributed by the Bolsheviks in Kiev (Ukraine), on March 8 (International Women’s Day), 1915. The leaflet gives us an idea of how the Bolsheviks posed the question in their public agitation. Their appeal linked the oppression of women to the suffering of male workers, and to a program for the liberation of all working people.

The war was a disaster for the people of Russia. From the outset, the Germans dealt the Russian forces one devastating blow after another. In the Summer Campaign of 1915 the Russians were kicked out of Galicia610 and the German army was poised to take all Poland, the Baltic, and Byelorussia. Ill-prepared for war, the tsarist armies suffered one humiliating defeat after another. As early as the summer of 1914, 150,000 Russians were prisoners of war. By the end of the war, the number of Russians killed at the front rose to a staggering 1.8 million. Slowly but surely, the seemingly mighty armies of the tsar were being ground to a bloody pulp. To replace such horrendous losses, millions of workers and peasants were called up—nearly 16 million by the end. And to make up for the lost numbers in industry, new layers were drawn into the factories—women, youth, and peasants—all without any previous experience of factory life and the class struggle. This caused further difficulties for the revolutionaries who still remained. But the harsh conditions of wartime soon educated the new layers.

The main victims of the war were women. The suffering and death at the front were only one face of the war. The other, less well-known but no less appalling, was the fate of those numberless women from working-class and peasant homes who saw their world collapse into ruins as if by the command of some pitiless and all-powerful god. Drafted into the factories to replace their menfolk sent to the front, the proletarian women had to bear the brunt of the social problems of the war. Formerly backward and unorganized, they soon learned a harsh lesson in the school of factory life, and became transformed. Exploited and oppressed in the factory and in the home, working long hours under bad conditions only to find at the end of the month that their wages had been eroded by the remorseless rise in prices, the women saw that the rich owners were literally taking the bread from the mouths of their children. Sweeping aside all the traditional prejudices about a woman’s role, they occupied the front line of battle.

An investigation carried out into 700,000 war workers by the Special Council for Defense in 1917 found that 17 percent of them were women and 12.5 percent adolescents. In manufacturing industry generally the proportion of women rose from 27.4 percent in 1914 to 34.2 percent in January 1917; the corresponding figure for adolescents and juveniles (of both sexes) were 10.9 percent and 14.0 percent. In the engineering industry female labor accounted for a mere 1.1 percent of the total number of employees in 1913 but for 14.3 percent in January 1917; the percentage of adolescents and juveniles rose slightly from 9.4 percent to 11.7 percent. In the textile industry, where women had always played a very important part, their proportion now doubled, reaching 43.4 percent. Women were even recruited for underground work in the mines, although at least not as face-workers. On the records of the factory inspectorate there were virtually as many women and young people as there were men.611

Lenin constantly emphasized the revolutionary potential of these women proletarians and insisted that the party take special measures to win them to the revolutionary cause. To this end, they launched, in 1914, a woman’s newspaper, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker). Already in the revolutionary upsurge of 1912–14, the party had begun consistent work among women, and had organized the first International Women’s Day meeting in Russia in 1913. Simultaneously, Pravda began to publish a regular page devoted to questions affecting women. The first issue of Rabotnitsa came out on International Women’s Day, to coincide with a demonstration organized by the party. Rabotnitsa was financed by collections organized by women in the factories, on the same lines as Pravda. It carried material on the conditions of women workers and reported on their struggles. It also reported on the position of women in other countries. The same year that Rabotnitsa appeared the Mensheviks also began to publish a woman’s newspaper. However, these publications shared the same fate as the rest of the workers’ press in Russia after July 1914.

The work of the Bolshevik Party among women had nothing whatsoever in common with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois feminism, but was impregnated with an implacable revolutionary and class spirit. From the beginning, the Bolsheviks encouraged women to get organized and join in the struggle of the male workers, and urged them to turn their backs on the movements set up by bourgeois women after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. In the leaflet already quoted we read the following:

Comrades! Working women! The men comrades toil along with us. Their fate and ours are one. But they have long since found the only road to a better life—the road of organized labor’s struggle with capital, the road of struggle against all oppression, evil, and violence. Women workers, there is no other road for us. The interests of the working men and women are equal, are one. Only in a united struggle together with the men workers, in joint workers’ organizations—in the Social Democratic Party, the trade unions, workers’ clubs, and cooperatives—shall we obtain our rights and win a better life.

Of course, the party took up those demands of special interest to women—benefits for pregnancy and maternity; full equality of civil and family rights for men and women, and so on. But all these demands were seen as part of the general struggles of the working class as a whole and inseparably linked to the perspective of socialist revolution: “Comrades! Working women, let’s go to work! Wake all those who are still sound asleep; unite in struggle for the demands of the whole working class.”612

As the conditions worsened, so women began to participate more and more in strikes and demonstrations against the appalling conditions brought on by the war. Nor did they stop at merely economic demands. The women textile workers of Kostroma distributed a leaflet to the troops with the title To the Russian soldier from the Russian Woman. The regime, in a panic, lashed out. Troops and Cossacks were sent into Kostroma and on July 5, there were bloody clashes in which 12 people were killed and 45 wounded. In the whole of 1915, 20 percent of all strikes were political. In the war months of 1914 the figure was only 11 percent. The work of the Bolshevik Party among women bore important fruits. During the dark days of the war, the women Bolsheviks played a key role in agitating against the war and fighting against chauvinism. It is no accident that the Russian Revolution of February 1917 commenced on Woman’s Day, and that the first initiative came from the women workers who had received their baptism of fire during the war.


609 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 268.

610 Galicia was the part of Poland that was under Austrian rule before the First World War.

611 Keep, Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 49.

612 Reprinted in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 268 and 269.

115) Pacifist Gestures

Discontent with the war was naturally most deeply felt by women, who in many ways were the main victims everywhere. The Bolshevik women’s journal Rabotnitsa took the initiative to campaign for an international conference of left socialist women and wrote to Klara Zetkin as secretary of the International Women’s Bureau, who immediately agreed to it. In March 1915 in Oslo, there were mass demonstrations of women against the war. In the same month the Berne Socialist Women’s Conference of German and Austro-Hungarian Social Democrats was convened by socialist leaders of the German bloc, anxious not to be outdone by their counterparts in the Entente. Lenin was quick to see this as an opportunity to put forward the ideas of revolutionary internationalism. This was a chance to put the work among women to good use. At the conference there were 25 delegates from eight countries. The Bolsheviks were represented by four delegates, including Inessa Armand and Krupskaya. The Polish delegate, Kamenskaya, also stood for a hard-line Leninist position. The majority, however, were muddled centrists, pacifists, and reformists. Had Rosa Luxemburg been present, it might at least have made a difference to the flavor of the proceedings, if not the final outcome. But Rosa was in a German prison, and her place was taken by Klara Zetkin, who, much to Lenin’s annoyance, made all sorts of concessions to the pacifist majority and watered down Lenin’s position to remove its revolutionary essence.

A courageous stand on the war at this conference would have been a rallying call for the left internationally. Lenin wrote a declaration for this meeting which was not passed. Instead, the majority took the line of “We can’t criticize the parties,” and must confine ourselves to “supporting peace.” When the Bolshevik delegates opposed this and stuck out for their resolution, they were subject to a barrage of criticism, and portrayed as sectarians and splitters for standing in the way of unity. Lenin already anticipated such accusations which he had heard so many times. The left reformists and centrists have always denounced the real revolutionaries as “sectarians” because they refuse to compromise on principled questions. On this, Lenin wrote to Alexandra Kollontai:

“You underline that ‘what we must put forward is a slogan that would unite us all.’ Frankly, what I fear most of all at the present time is just this kind of indiscriminate unity, which in my opinion is most dangerous and harmful to the proletariat.”

Lenin was indignant and spared no feelings in his denunciation of these so-called peace initiatives, even though Klara Zetkin was friendly to him. Indeed he was particularly scathing about her role.

She would have to see, she could not help seeing, he said, that sliding down into pacifism at such a time was impossible. All the issues at stake had to be emphasized very strongly.

The accusations of “splitting” cut no ice with Lenin. “‘No matter that we are so few,’ he said once, ‘We shall have millions with us’.”613 In another letter to Alexandra Kollontai written in July 1915, Lenin underlined the impermissibility of unprincipled agreements with Kautsky and the “lefts” on the grounds of preserving unity:

In international affairs we shall not be for rapprochement with Haase-Bernstein-Kautsky (for in practice they want unity with the Südekums and to shield them, they want to get away with Left phrases and to change nothing in the old rotten party). We cannot stand for the watchword of peace, because we consider it supremely muddled, pacifist, petty-bourgeois, helping the governments (they now want to be with one hand “for peace,” in order to climb out of their difficulties) and obstructing the revolutionary struggle.

In our opinion, the Left should make a common declaration of principle (1) unquestionably condemning the social-chauvinists and opportunists, (2) giving a program of revolutionary action (whether to say civil war or revolutionary mass action, is not so important), (3) against the watchword of “defense of the fatherland,” etc. A declaration of principle by the “Left,” in the name of several countries, would have a gigantic significance (of course, not in the spirit of the Zetkin philistinism which she got adopted at the Women’s Conference at Berne; Zetkin evaded the question of condemning social-chauvinism!! out of a desire for “peace” with the Südekums+Kautsky??).614

A few days later, the International Socialist Youth Conference was also held in Berne, summoned by the secretary of the Swiss Young Socialists, Willy Münzenberg. The German and French YS refused to participate, arguing that the war question was outside their competence. The Austrian YS took the same position. Despite this, delegates came from Germany and the RSDLP was represented by Inessa Armand and G.I. Safarov. The majority even here were “centrists.” The Bolshevik resolution was lost 13-3 and a pacifist resolution was carried, as with the women. But they did decide to hold an “International (anti-militarist) Youth Day” annually and publish a journal, Youth International, which carried articles by Lenin and Liebknecht.

Lenin’s comments on the conference of the youth was that it was full of good intentions but basically “marking time,” that is to say: the decisive break with the social-chauvinists was avoided. These early efforts did not lead very far. The time was not yet ripe. The ground not sufficiently prepared for a big shift to the left. On the other hand, it can be argued that Lenin’s position was out of step with the majority—he went a bit too far, too fast. But as the war dragged on with no end in sight, the situation changed. The current was flowing to the left in many countries, and this was eventually reflected inside the mass organizations, beginning with the unions, which began to reflect the mood of opposition developing in the masses against the intolerable impositions, exploitation, profiteering, and inflation, which was expressed in a wave of strikes. In Britain, the birth of the shop stewards’ movement was a direct result of the radicalization of the workers and the class collaboration and remoteness of the trade union bureaucracy.

The first expression of these stirrings of revolution was the strengthening of left reformist and centrist currents in the leadership of the Socialist Parties. The pacifist declarations of the leaders reflected in a distorted, emasculated way the desperate yearning for peace, the hatred of the imperialist war of the mass of workers, peasants, soldiers, and women. In June 1915, Kautsky, Haase, and Bernstein published a declaration, The Demands of the Moment, which appeared in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, protesting against the “war of annexation” and calling for a speedy conclusion of peace. This belated action of the opportunist leaders was a feeble reflection of the mood of the masses. At every opportunity Lenin subjected the pacifism of the centrists to withering criticism.


613 Quoted in Krupskaya, Reminscences of Lenin, 301 and 303.

614 LCW, To Alexandra Kollontai, 7/11/1915, vol. 35, 193–94.