127) 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 shirttails 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 July 1. 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 organized 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 reestablish 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,” wrote Lenin, “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 counterrevolution.”683

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 demobilizing effect on the masses. In the event, the latter variant was what occurred.

On July 2 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 the 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 reelections to the Soviets provided the necessary machinery for securing a sufficiently faithful reflection of the growing radicalization 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 organizations, 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 doctrinarism of the Coalitionists and compel them to realize 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.684

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 Organization—sympathized 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,” said Lenin, “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 behavior of our Party . . . Events should not be anticipated. Time is on our side.”685

But the Bolsheviks could not prevent the explosion that was being prepared. On July 3, 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.686

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 organized 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 July 3 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 Organization, taking into account the mood of the masses, decided to take part in the demonstration in order to give it an organized 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 July 4, 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 organize us!” was the typical comment. But things were not so simple, as events showed.

By July 4, 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!687

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 counterrevolutionary offensive. The bourgeois took revenge for the fright it had suffered. The counterattack 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 “counterrevolutionary 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 July 4–5, the Justice Minister P.N. Pereverzev gave the press papers that purported to show that Lenin was a German agent. On the night of July 5, 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.


683 LCW, An Alliance to Stop the Revolution, vol. 25, 53.

684 Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, in The Essential Trotsky, 35–36 and 37.

685 Rabinonowitch, Prelude to Revolution: the Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, 121–22.

686 Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 424.

687 Ibid., 38–39 and 431.

128) After the July Events

The demonstration of July 2 and 3 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 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 organized 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 judgment of the Bolsheviks who had warned them in advance of what would happen, but then participated shoulder to shoulder with them.

On July 2, 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 counterrevolutionaries 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 flavor 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.”688

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 counterrevolution 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 July 6, 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., July 7, 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.689

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.”690

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 counterrevolution. 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 counterrevolution . . . 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 counterrevolution this commission has been dissolved . . . To turn ourselves in to the authorities now would be to put ourselves into the hands of the Miliukovs, Aleksinskys, Pereverzevs—that is, into the hands of dyed-in-the-wool counterrevolutionaries for whom the charges against us are nothing more than an episode in the civil war.691

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 favor 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 counterrevolution 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.”692 Several Bolshevik Party offices were raided and smashed. This happened to the printshop 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 saber, 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 counterrevolution.

Two years later, during the Spartakist 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 counterrevolutionary 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.693

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 counterrevolutionaries 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 July 5, 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 counterrevolutionaries:

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.694

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 reestablish “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 reestablishment 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 counterrevolution 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 July 10 (23), 1917, wrote:

Citizen Ministers:

I have learned that in connection with the events of July 16–17, 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 July 16–17 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 July 16. 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 “interward” organization (i.e., Mezhrayontsi) 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 favor 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 July 16–17 between some Bolsheviks and ward organizations, I supported the motion of Kamenev that everything should be done to prevent a recurrence of the demonstration on July 17. 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 July 17, 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 rumors 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 emphasizes the counterrevolutionary high-handedness that lies behind the attack on Lenin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev.695

The authorities obliged, and Trotsky was imprisoned in the Kresty Fortress.


688 Ibid., 433.

689 LCW, To the Bureau of the Central Executive Committee, vol. 43, 636.

690 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 366.

691 Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 34 in both quotes.

692 Ibid., 43.

693 Ibid., 36.

694 Ibid., 45.

695 Reprinted in The Age of the Permanent Revolution, 98–99 (my emphasis).

129) 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 northwest of the capital, Lenin was in a somber 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 realized, but initially Lenin was inclined to overestimate the advance of the counterrevolution 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.”696

Maria Sulimova, a Bolshevik staff worker with whom Lenin stayed on July 6, 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.’”697

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 counterrevolution. 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 July 5–9, 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.698

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 counterrevolution appeared to have triumphed all along the line. Lenin saw that the tide of counterrevolution 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 polarization and radicalization of society would inevitably express itself in the Soviets, as the main mass organizations 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 organizations 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 maneuvering 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 counterrevolution, and, in Lenin’s opinion, making future violence and civil war inevitable. In that sense, these were counterrevolutionary soviets, inasmuch as the right-wing reformist leadership, leaning on the Soviets, was actively assisting the bourgeoisie to reestablish 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.699

Despite everything, the Bolsheviks recovered fairly quickly from the defeat of July. The victory of the counterrevolution 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 demobilize and go home. The attempts to restore discipline under such circumstances only made things worse. The soldiers also observed with growing alarm the reemergence of counterrevolutionary 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 organizers 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 Mezhrayontsi) 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. “Nonetheless,” Alexander Rabinowitch points out,

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 1917.700


696 Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 37.

697 LCW, Note to L.B. Kamenev, vol. 36, 454.

698 LCW, The Political Situation, vol. 25, 177–78.

699 LCW, Theses for a Report at the October 8 Conference of the Petrograd Organization, vol. 26, 143.

700 Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 77.

130) Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party

The events of 1917 were a defining moment for the revolutionary movement in Russia. Here, at last, all theories, programs, 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, but 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 counterrevolutionary 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 Mezhrayontsi 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.701

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.702

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 Mezhrayontsi 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 joining formally the Bolsheviks after his return was that, with Lenin’s full agreement, he was working to win over the Mezhrayontsi group. The “Mezhdurayonny komitet,” or “Mezhrayonka” as it was popularly known, means the “Inter-District Committee.” This was not a new organization, 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; Riazanov, 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.703 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 Mezhrayontsi. 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 organizationally 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’ organization 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 organizations at the Communist Party Congress. Formally, I remained in that organization 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.704

On May 10, as if to underline the importance he attached to this question, Lenin himself attended a meeting of the Mezhrayontsi and took the extraordinary step of offering them a seat on the editorial board of Pravda and on the organization committee of the forthcoming party congress.705 In connection with this, he wrote:

In compliance with the decision of the All-Russia Conference, the Central Committee of our Party, recognizing the extreme desirability of union with the Inter-District Organization, advanced the following proposals (they were first made to the Inter-District Organization 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 Labor Party will be asked to include a representative of the Inter-District Organization 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 Organizing 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 “defensists,” 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.706

Lenin’s anxiety to win over the Mezhrayontsi 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, 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 Mezhrayontsi responded to Lenin’s initial overtures with a certain reserve. Not until the summer was the ground sufficiently prepared for the Mezhrayontsi to join the Bolsheviks, which they finally did at the Sixth Congress. However, even before they formally merged, the two organizations 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.707

In order to speed up the accession of the Mezhrayontsi to the Bolshevik Party, which was opposed by some of the Mezhrayontsi 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 organization. Accordingly there are no motives which justify the separate existence of these organizations.”708

Following in the time-honored 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.”709 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 Mezhrayontsi. But Lenin’s attitude to this group was well known to be highly critical. In the same speech to the October 8 Conference, Lenin indignantly rejected the proposal to elect Larin as a Bolshevik candidate to the Constituent Assembly, describing it as “especially scandalous.”710

This reference can only be to Trotsky and the Mezhrayontsi. The fact that no real political differences existed between the Bolsheviks and the Mezhrayontsi 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 organizations 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 Mezhrayontsi occupied an internationalist position, and in their tactics were close to the Bolsheviks.”


701 LCW, From the Theses for a Report at the October 8 Conference of the St. Petersburg Organization, vol. 41, 447.

702 Quoted in Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 814.

703 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 Mezhrayontsi, 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, 102 and in a note to Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 24, 601.

704 The Case of Leon Trotsky, 21.

705 See Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, 99.

706 LCW, The Question of Uniting the Internationalists, May 31 (18), 1917, vol. 24, 431–32.

707 Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, 100.

708 Quoted in Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 811.

709 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 657–58, note.

710 See LCW, From the Thesis for a Report at the October 8 Conference of the St. Petersburg Organization, vol. 41, 447.