131) The Kornilov Rebellion

Slowly at first, but then with ever greater energy, the Bolsheviks were also regrouping. Under the indefatigable leadership of Yakov Sverdlov, a capable and cool-headed organizer from the Urals, things were quickly pulled together in Petrograd. The repression had not succeeded in destroying the party. This was no accident. The counterrevolution was still feeling its way. It was obliged to camouflage its actions by speaking in the name of the revolution and the Soviets. Even the troops who put down the July demonstration did so in the name of defending the Soviet. A drastic clampdown would have caused problems, although that is what Kerensky wanted. They were obliged to proceed with caution. Even the trials of the “German agents” had to be postponed, in part for the complete lack of any real evidence. Conditions were still difficult, of course. The loss of offices and records temporarily disorganized the work:

“We lost just about everything—our documents, accounts, quarters, literally everything!” a member of the Executive Committee complained. The suppression of Pravda was a serious blow, and the party was reduced to turning out leaflets on a dilapidated hand press left over from the tsarist period. Only in early August were the Bolsheviks able to resume publication of a regular organ. However, morale was quickly recovering. Sverdlov was able to telegraph party organizations in the provinces that “the mood in Piter [the colloquial name for Petrograd] is hale and hearty. We are keeping our heads. The organization is not destroyed.”711

The Bolshevik leadership met on July 13–14 to consider the change of tactics proposed by Lenin, which was badly received. Out of 15 party leaders in attendance, ten voted against. The resolution finally adopted by the Central Committee made no reference either to the end of the period of peaceful development of the revolution or to the need to prepare for an armed uprising. When Lenin found this out the next day, he was thoroughly alarmed. What did this foot-dragging mean? In his article On Slogans, he tackled head-on the tendency of his comrades to postpone revolutionary action and make concessions to the reformists. The situation had experienced a sharp turn after the July Days. The reaction was now in the saddle:

“Primarily, and above all, the people must know the truth—they must know who actually wields state power. The people must be told the whole truth, namely, that power is in the hands of a military clique of Cavaignacs712 (Kerensky, certain generals, officers, etc.), who are supported by the bourgeois class headed by the Cadet Party, and by all the monarchists, acting through the Black Hundred papers, Novoye Vremya, Zhivoye Slovo, etc., etc.”

These words proved to be prophetic. The Cavaignacs of the officer caste were indeed preparing a counterstroke. It was necessary to prepare the party and warn the masses of the impending conflict. And the Soviets? Lenin wrote:

“Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present Soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favor of building the whole state on the model of the Soviets. It is not a question of Soviets in general, but of combating the present counterrevolution and the treachery of the present Soviets.”713

At the Second City Conference, Volodarsky, who had come over with the Mezhrayontsi and played a prominent role in the Bolshevik organization in Petrograd until his assassination by a Left SR terrorist in 1918, expressed the views of many of those present when he said:

“People who claim the counterrevolution is victorious are making judgments about the masses on the basis of their leaders. While the [top Menshevik and SR] leaders are shifting rightward, the masses are moving leftward. Kerensky, Tsereteli and Avksentiev are caliphs for one hour . . .
The petty bourgeoisie will swing to our side. Bearing this in mind, it is clear that the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ is not obsolete.” [Another delegate,] Veinberg, added: “The present government won’t be able to do a thing about the economic crisis; the Soviets and political parties will swing leftward. The majority of the democracy is grouped around the Soviets and so rejecting the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ can have very harmful consequences.”714

As a matter of fact, Lenin was mistaken. Lenin, who was in hiding, later admitted that he was out of touch with the situation. Subsequent developments showed that the Bolsheviks could still win a majority in the Soviets and defeat the right-wing reformist leaders, and it was precisely this that guaranteed the success of the October Revolution. Now this seems so obvious that further comment is superfluous. Yet there was nothing automatic about it. Throughout the summer, it was touch and go, and Lenin’s worries were by no means without foundation.

The decisive turning point was precisely the moment when it seemed that the Bolsheviks had suffered a decisive defeat and initiative had passed to the counterrevolution. Throughout the summer of 1917, the pendulum continued to swing towards the right. On July 18, General Brussilov was replaced by General Lavr Kornilov, an adventurer who, unlike most other members of the officer caste, was not an aristocrat but the son of a Cossack smallholder. Personally brave, Kornilov was also a maverick with a habit of disobeying orders. Narrow in outlook and politically illiterate, he had the soldier’s solution to all problems: There was nothing wrong with Russia that could not be solved by a whiff of grapeshot and the crack of an officer’s whip. Of him it was remarked that he had “the heart of a lion, and the brain of a sheep.”

Echoing the central demand of the counterrevolution, Kornilov insisted on the reintroduction of the death penalty at the front, where, in practice, he had already introduced it by ordering deserters to be shot. As a condition for accepting the Supreme Command, Kornilov dictated terms to Kerensky. In addition to the death penalty, he demanded the prohibition of meetings at the front, the disbanding of revolutionary regiments and an end to the powers of soldiers’ committees. Later, these demands were broadened to include the restoration of the death penalty for civilians, the imposition of martial law, and the banning of strikes in defense industries and the railways, on pain of capital punishment. This was a finished program for a counterrevolutionary dictatorship.

For his part, Kerensky did not disagree with any of this, except maybe the timing. His main disagreement with Kornilov was that there could only be one Bonaparte, and Kerensky was determined to reserve that role for himself. However, personal rivalries did not prevent Kerensky from entering into contact with Kornilov and participating in the plot. This has led historians like Orlando Figes to assume that Kornilov never intended to overthrow Kerensky and install himself as dictator, but only to save the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks. But Figes’ own researches contradict this argument. He writes:

None of which is to deny that many of Kornilov’s supporters were urging him to do away with the Provisional Government altogether. The Union of Officers, for example, laid plans for a military coup d’état, while a “conference of public men” in mid-August, made up mostly of Cadets and right-wing businessmen, clearly encouraged Kornilov in that direction. At the center of these rightist circles was Vasilii Zavoiko, a rather shady figure—property speculator, industrial financier, journalist and political intriguer—who, according to General Martynov, acted as Kornilov’s “personal guide, one might even say his mentor, on all state matters.” Zavoiko’s plans for a coup d’état were so well known that even Whitehall had heard of them: as early as August 8 the Foreign Ministry in London told Buchanan, its Ambassador in Petrograd, that according to its military sources, Zavoiko was plotting the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Nor is it to deny that Kornilov himself had his own ambitions in the political field—the cult of Kornilov, which he helped to generate, was a clear manifestation of this—and he must have been tempted by the constant urgings of his supporters, like Zavoiko, to exploit his enormous popularity in order to install himself as dictator.715

Figes bases himself on the fact that Kornilov, while his army was advancing on Petrograd, loudly proclaimed that he was doing so in order to “save” the government from a “Bolshevik coup” which was rumored to be planned for the end of August. This “coup” was an invention, and had obviously been cooked up as a justification for Kornilov’s action in ordering General Krymov to advance on Petrograd. That is a pathetic line of argument. One does not have to be a genius to see that Kornilov was only using the well-known tactic of disguising an offensive action as a defensive one. Pretending to “save” the existing government, he would place the latter at his mercy and then brush it to one side and install himself as dictator. This scenario is not even original. It is the well-worn path trodden by every would-be Bonapartist, from Napoleon onwards.

Kerensky, the other aspiring Bonaparte, attempted to do a deal with Kornilov through his emissary, the Octobrist Duma deputy V.N. Lvov. But Kornilov told Lvov that he was demanding dictatorial powers for himself. There was no room for a second Bonaparte! Only at this point did Kerensky denounce Kornilov’s “counterrevolutionary conspiracy” to the cabinet. Kornilov was ordered to withdraw his troops. If indeed he was only acting to save the Provisional Government, then it is not clear why he did not take orders from it and retire to barracks. Instead, he announced his intention to “save Russia” from a government which was now under the control of the Bolsheviks!

On August 25 General Kornilov began his advance on Petrograd. This was a sudden and sharp turn in events, which is one of the main characteristics of a revolutionary period. And here we see the importance of tactics, which by their very nature must be flexible, such that a revolutionary party can change course within a question of days or even hours, if necessary. The question was posed point-blank: what attitude should the Bolsheviks take in the conflict between Kerensky and Kornilov? Despite the counterrevolutionary and repressive policy of the Provisional Government, it was necessary to join in the struggle against the open forces of reaction represented by Kornilov. This was understood instinctively by the workers, including the Bolshevik workers of the Vyborg District who were the first to rush to the defense of Petrograd.

Alarmed by this turn in events, the reformist leaders in the Soviet Executive were compelled to issue a call to the workers to defend the revolution. The Bolsheviks were invited to participate in the Committee for Struggle Against the Counterrevolution. Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison, where they had languished after the July Days. Immediately, the Bolsheviks accepted the offer of a united front, and energetically set about combating the counterrevolution. However, the Bolshevik policy in no sense signified support for the Provisional Government. As Lenin explained:

Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.

We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten.716

Lenin stated that the Bolsheviks would use Kerensky as a “gun rest” to fight against Kornilov, and then, when they were strong enough, they would deal with Kerensky:

We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way, namely, we shall point out to the people (who are fighting against Kornilov) Kerensky’s weakness and vacillation. That has been done in the past as well. Now, however, it has become the all-important thing and this constitutes the change.717

This is the essence of Lenin’s tactic throughout 1917: not to attack the reformist leaders directly, but to outflank them, to attack the main enemy, the landlords and capitalists and the reaction, and to show in practice that the reformists were incapable of fighting reaction, incapable of acting decisively in the interests of the workers and peasants.

Here was a classic example of the Leninist policy of the united front in action. The Bolsheviks threw themselves energetically into struggle alongside the Menshevik and SR rank-and-file workers and soldiers who had earlier believed the slanders about “German agents.” They proved in action that they were the best fighters against the counterrevolution, and thereby laid the basis for winning over the mass of workers and soldiers who had hitherto backed the reformist leaders.

There can be no doubt that the participation of the Bolsheviks was decisive in defeating Kornilov. Even the anti-Bolshevik Figes admits that:

The Committee of Struggle represented a united front of the whole Soviet movement. But it was effectively dependent on the military organization of the Bolsheviks, without which, in the words of Sukhanov, it “could only have passed the time with appeals and idle speeches by orators who had lost their authority.” Only the Bolsheviks had the ability to mobilize and arm the mass of the workers and soldiers, and they now worked in close collaboration with their rivals in the Soviets.718

Utilizing revolutionary methods, the Bolsheviks mobilized the workers against the Kornilovites. On paper, the latter represented a formidable force. Their shock troops were the so-called Savage Division, recruited from warlike mountain tribes in the North Caucasus. But the movement of the reactionary troops under General Krymov’s soon ground to a halt. The railway workers sabotaged the trains, which were driven off course and into sidings, as the points were switched by an invisible hand. Once the advance was halted, the rebel troops were engaged by Bolshevik agitators, who even persuaded the Cossacks not to fight. The Savage Division was addressed in their own language by a delegation of Caucasian Muslims who happened to be at a Soviet congress in Petrograd at the time of the mutiny. Soon the rebel officers had been arrested by their own men. Krymov shot himself. The Kornilov revolt collapsed, like a wave breaking over a rock.

Marx once wrote that the revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution, and that was shown to be true. What was intended to be the decisive move of the counterrevolution was turned into its opposite. The defeat of Kornilov gave a powerful impulse to the revolution. Everywhere the soldiers turned against their officers. Many were arrested by their own men. The most unpopular ones were shot. The soldiers’ assemblies voted for the immediate signing of peace, and the transfer of power to the Soviets. They also voted with their feet. Whole units disbanded, as the peasant soldiers returned to their villages. The arrival of so many radicalized elements from the front in turn acted as a stimulus to the peasant revolt that flared up in September. The revolution had entered its decisive phase.


711 Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 62 and 59.

712 Louis Cavaignac was the French general who, as War Minister in the Provisional Government established by the French Revolution of February 1848, led the suppression of the Paris workers’ uprising in June of that year.

713 LCW, On Slogans, vol. 25, 188 and 189.

714 Quoted in Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 68.

715 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 445–46.

716 LCW, To the CC of the RSDLP, vol. 25, 289–90.

717 LCW, To the CC of the RSDLP, vol. 25, 290.

718 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 452.

132) The Struggle for the Masses

The decisive arena of struggle, without doubt, was the Soviets. From the moment of Lenin’s return, the Bolshevik Party was firmly oriented to the goal of the conquest of power. But the prior condition for this was the winning over of a decisive majority of the working class. This meant winning a majority in those organizations that commanded the allegiance of the mass of workers and soldiers—the Soviets. But a serious obstacle was the domination of the Soviets by the reformist leaders, the Mensheviks and SRs. From February until the summer, the majority was firmly in the hands of the Mensheviks and SRs who favored a coalition with the bourgeois liberals, although they were obliged to cover their rear end by using the old formula of supporting the Provisional Government “insofar as” it did this or that. This was to silence criticisms from the workers in the Soviets who were naturally suspicious of the bourgeois government. But they trusted their leaders and would not automatically abandon them, even though they did not agree with some of their policies. The Bolsheviks were initially at a great disadvantage. Their weakness in the Soviets immediately after February is even greater than the figures suggest. In some Soviets they had a disproportionately large representation because they did deals with the Mensheviks to present joint lists of candidates. Thus, in Saratov, the Bolsheviks got three out of five members of the Soviet presidium, when they only had 28 out of 248 deputies in the plenum.719

From the spring onwards, the Bolsheviks waged an energetic campaign for new elections to the Soviets. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly from their own experience. The Soviets, it is true, are a much more faithful reflection of the changing moods and consciousness of the masses than the cumbersome machinery of even the most democratic parliament. But even the Soviets lagged behind the swiftly changing situation, and more often than not reflected the yesterday rather than the today of the masses’ ideas and aspirations. The Bolsheviks were always much stronger in the factory committees because these were much closer to the rank-and-file workers and thus reflected more quickly the real mood at the bottom.

Between August and September, the composition of the Soviets experienced a dramatic transformation. Here again the Kornilov affair marks the decisive turning point. The threat of counterrevolution spurred the Soviets to demand decisive action, and the Bolshevik slogans of a break with the bourgeoisie and “all power to the Soviets” began to take root. The Soviet Executive Committee was inundated with telegrams demanding that it take the power. Although the process was somewhat uneven, the general tendency was clearly towards the Bolsheviks from this time onwards. The Soviet Executive still clung to its discredited policy of support for the Provisional Government, but only by a wafer-thin majority—there were 86 delegates in favor of soviet power, and only 97 against. But the situation was changing by the day, almost by the hour.

A decisive turning point occurred in the first week of September when control of the Petrograd Soviet passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks. The balance of forces was revealed when a resolution demanding the formation of a government of workers and peasants proposed by the Bolsheviks received 229 votes, with 115 against and 51 abstentions, which revealed that many of the Menshevik and SR workers had voted for the Bolsheviks. As a result, the stunned reformist leadership announced their resignation. Panicking at the loss of this key position, the reformists immediately commenced a furious campaign in the pages of Izvestiya, alleging, as usual in such cases, that the meeting had been unrepresentative and calling on all delegates to turn up to the next meeting to overturn the vote.720

The session of September 9 was a heated one. Everyone was aware of the vital importance of the outcome. All the factions ensured that they were represented down to the last delegate. There were about 1,000 delegates present. Fearing that they could not get a majority on their own to oust the presidium, the Bolshevik delegation proposed that the voting be on a proportional basis. Lenin condemned this procedural move, which he feared might blunt the edge of the Bolsheviks’ case. The issue was the question of workers’ power, and no amount of constitutional wrangling should be allowed to obscure this. But Lenin need not have worried. The issues were sufficiently clear to all, and the procedural proposal had the advantage that it helped win over the wavering elements, namely Martov’s group and even the more right-wing Popular Socialists. In any case, the chairman Tsereteli ruled the compromise out of order. But the right wing had miscalculated. By ruling out a compromise and obliging the delegates to vote on a straight resolution, moved by the reformists, that the previous vote on September 1 did not correspond to the line of the Soviet, and reaffirming support for the old presidium, they forced the Bolsheviks to pick up the gauntlet and polarized the whole meeting. It was a question of “either . . . or.”

The leading speaker for the Bolsheviks was Trotsky, in his first public appearance since his release from prison. He was warmly applauded by part of the hall, before launching a blistering attack on the presidium. Was Kerensky still a member of the presidium, yes or no? The question immediately put the presidium on a wrong footing. After a moment’s hesitation, the answer was given in the affirmative. This was exploited to the full by Trotsky: “We had firmly believed that Kerensky would not be allowed to sit in the presidium. We were mistaken. The ghost of Kerensky now sits between Dan and Cheidze . . . When they propose to you to sanction the political line of the presidium, do not forget that you will be sanctioning the policies of Kerensky.”721 Even at this stage, the Bolsheviks directed their fire, not so much at the reformists, but always at the bourgeois and Kerensky, who was now completely identified with the bourgeois. By such skillful propaganda, they succeeded in winning over workers who had up till recently stood solidly behind the Mensheviks and SRs. By concentrating their attacks on the class enemy, they systematically exposed the class-collaborationist policies of the reformists, their cowardice, their unwillingness to confront the enemies of the workers and peasants, and thereby drove a wedge between the reformists and their supporters.

The result of the vote could not be clearer: for the Coalition, 414 votes; against, 519; abstentions, 67. This victory for the Bolsheviks was even more resounding for the fact that the reformists had spared no efforts to pack the meeting with their supporters and had themselves insisted in turning the vote into a referendum on the issue: The Coalition or Soviet Power? Reformism or Bolshevism? The defeat was a body blow to the right wing. They had invested so much in winning this meeting that the loss of the vote seemed to deflate them utterly. On the other hand, the left wing was encouraged and pressed home its advantage. On September 11, when Dan defended the Coalition against Trotsky, who spoke for a Soviet government in the Petrograd Soviet, the Coalition was rejected with only ten votes cast for, and seven abstentions. The battle in Petrograd had been decisively won.

The tide was now flowing strongly in favor of the Bolsheviks everywhere. On September 5, the Congress of Soviets of Central Siberia solidly backed the Bolsheviks. Moscow soon followed suit, with the Bolsheviks winning the majority not only in the Soviet, but in the soldiers’ committee that existed separately from it. In the elections to the Moscow Workers’ Soviet Executive Committee, held on September 19, the Bolsheviks won 32 seats, the Mensheviks 16. Nogin was elected President. On October 5, the Bolsheviks presented a resolution on the current situation to a session of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet and the result was 335 votes for and 254 against. But in the Executive of the Soldiers’ Soviet the situation was different. Here the Bolsheviks remained in a minority, with 16 seats, as against 26 for the SRs and nine Mensheviks—a situation that lasted right up to the October insurrection. For this reason in the general meetings of both executives, the rival factions were evenly balanced, and the Bolsheviks were sometimes in a minority, although they usually managed to get their resolutions passed. On the other hand, in the Moscow region as a whole, the Bolsheviks had won the majority as far back as May.722

The Bolsheviks also had a strong position in the northern territories around Petrograd. In the Kronstadt Soviet, the Bolsheviks had 100 delegates, the Left SRs 75, the Menshevik Internationalists 12, the anarchists seven. The rest (90) were independents. The Bolsheviks got the majority in Finland—especially in Helsingfors and Vyborg, where the power of the Provisional Government was already eliminated in September. In Estonia, too, the left won outright. The big majority in September in Reval, Dorpat, and Wenden were Bolsheviks and Left SRs. In the regional committee elected in October there were six Bolsheviks, four Left SRs, one Menshevik Internationalist, and one right Menshevik. The organization of the Baltic Fleet—Centrobalt—broke off all relations with the Provisional Government and began to run its own affairs. The Fifth Legion, which was considered to be the finest of the frontline regiments, in mid-October voted in a new committee with a majority of Bolsheviks. Thus, not only Petrograd, but all the surrounding regions were firmly with the Bolsheviks.

Historically, the struggle to win influence in the trade unions, the basic unit of working-class organization, always occupied a central place in the strategy and tactics of Bolshevism. However, in the Russian Revolution, while the fight for control of the unions continued unabated, it was pushed into second place by the parallel struggle in the Soviets and factory committees. There were a number of reasons for this. In tsarist Russia, the trade unions eked out a precarious existence under an autocratic regime that frequently subjected them to arrests and all kinds of prohibitions that severely restricted their freedom to act. Thus, in 1917, the unions were in a relatively weak state, embracing only a small minority of workers, mostly in the more skilled and better paid layers of the class. The mass of unorganized workers who poured onto the stage after February organized themselves spontaneously in the Soviets and factory committees that were more flexible and more representative than the unions, which more often than not were dominated by conservative elements who naturally gravitated to the Mensheviks, rather than the revolutionary wing.

“Among the first institutions to rally to the Bolsheviks,” writes Lionel Kochan, “were the factory committees. By June-July the Petrograd committees were already under Bolshevik control; and at the third All-Russian Conference of Factory Committees (October 17–22) more than half the 167 voting delegates were Bolsheviks who also enjoyed the support of the 24 Socialist-Revolutionary delegates. The opposition consisted only of seven Mensheviks and 13 Anarcho-Syndicalists. This was indeed, as Trotsky proudly claimed, ‘the most direct and indubitable representation of the proletariat in the whole country.’”723

The work in the Soviets and factory committees, of course, did not mean that the Bolsheviks neglected the unions. On the contrary. Throughout 1917, the trade unions were a field of constant struggle between the revolutionary tendency and the reformist leaders. The advance of the Bolsheviks was more rapid in the metal workers of Petrograd, where they soon won a predominant influence. Workers were recruited en masse at factory meetings where all the main decisions were taken by an open show of hands. Here, too, the fresh new layers immediately gravitated to the revolutionary wing. It was this very layer that transformed the internal situation of the Bolshevik Party itself. Already in April, all but four executives of the metal workers’ union in Petrograd were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. By June, the Petrograd organization had a “fully formed apparatus” of over a hundred strong, paid for out of union funds. From Petrograd, the party’s influence in the unions spread out to other areas. By May the metal workers’ union had 54,000 members, and by August, 138,000.724 Given that the total workforce employed in the metal industry stood at 546,100 in January 1917, this represented a sizeable proportion of a key section of the proletariat. By the end of the year, the unions claimed a membership of 544,527 members in 236 organizations.

The picture in the textile union, the second most important group, was more mixed. In June, the union claimed a total membership of 240,000 members, and may have reached 400,000 by October. This was half the total employed in the industry. A large part of the workforce were women, and the textile industry was badly affected by unemployment, so there was at first a tendency to look to the union for solutions to pressing socioeconomic problems rather than revolutionary politics. This might explain why the Mensheviks and SRs dominated the union (except in Petrograd, where the Bolsheviks had had a small group before the February Revolution, and rapidly became the dominant force) in the period after February. But the Bolsheviks, once again using their base in Petrograd as a launching pad, set out to conquer one area after another, beginning with the important Central Industrial Area. In June they called a regional conference where a number of Bolshevik-inspired resolutions were passed, demanding, among other things, workers’ control of industry. The Menshevik leaders, in a manner common to all trade union bureaucracies when they are on the losing end, claimed that the conference was “irregular.” But in fact, it merely reflected a general swing to the left among the workers who were beginning to break free of the influence of the reformist leaders. The changing mood was reflected by the fact that the conference elected a new executive committee in which the Bolsheviks held positions of influence. Thus, step by step, the persistent and systematic work of the revolutionary tendency was wresting one position after another from the Mensheviks and SRs. By August, the Bolsheviks had managed to gain a strong position in the main industrial unions. Anweiler expresses the growth of the Bolsheviks in the unions thus:

While the Bolsheviks at the All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (June 1917) only had the support of 36.4 percent of the delegates, out of a total of 117 delegates in the Democratic Conference in September, 58 percent were Bolsheviks, as against 38.4 percent Mensheviks and right SRs.

Even in the traditionally conservative white-collar and craft unions, there had been a change in outlook and the Bolsheviks, though still in a minority, had won a sizeable following. However, in the upper reaches of the unions, things were different. The slow-moving machinery of the union structure meant that the changes at the lower level took a long time before communicating themselves to the leadership. In many of the unions, the Bolsheviks only gained control some time after the October Revolution. Some of them played an openly counterrevolutionary role, notably the bank clerks and the All-Russian Union of Railwaymen, which attempted to sabotage the Soviet government after the revolution.

Up until August, the Bolsheviks still remained a small minority of the working class. In the Soviets, they were the smallest group. The same was true of the local councils and the trade unions. In April, the party membership stood at around 80,000. By August, this had increased to 240,000.725 But the party’s influence in the working class was growing, especially since the Kornilov episode. In some areas, like Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the Bolsheviks were in the majority as early as the spring. But such cases were exceptional. In the provinces, and still more in the rural areas, the gulf separating the Bolsheviks from the reformist parties was enormous.

The July Days seemed to mark the final demise of the Bolsheviks. Yet in a few weeks the party had all but recovered the lost ground. The tactics of the Bolsheviks in opposing the Kornilov rising was the fundamental turning point, winning colossal prestige for the Bolsheviks as the most determined and energetic fighters against the counterrevolution, and once and for all laying to rest the slanders about “counterrevolutionaries” and “German agents.” The tide began to flow strongly in favor of the Bolsheviks to the degree that it became clear that the Provisional Government was not solving any one of the pressing problems facing the Russian people, and that the reformist leaders were mere appendages of the capitalists. The Bolshevik slogan of “peace, bread, and land” gained an ever wider audience.

By late August and early September, the Bolsheviks became the decisive mass force, not only in Petrograd and Moscow, but also in the provinces. Although the party remained relatively small in membership, for every member there were 20, 30, or 50 workers and soldiers who considered themselves to be Bolsheviks. Under such circumstances, when the current was flowing strongly in favor of the revolutionary tendency, even persecution acted as a spur to growth. Workers who were striking for higher wages, and were met with a chorus of disapproval from the bourgeois press which attacked them as Bolsheviks, became firmly convinced of the justness of the Bolsheviks’ cause, even though they had never read a single line of Lenin. Bolshevism was growing for the simple reason that its policies and slogans closely corresponded to the needs and aspirations of the workers and peasants.

“At the Seventh All-Russian Conference, in the first week of May,”726 writes Schapiro, “79,204 party members were represented by 149 delegates. The largest concentrations were in the Petrograd province and in the Urals (over 14,000 each), with Moscow province (7,000) and the Donets Basin (5,000) next in importance. The strength of the party increased rapidly in the next few months. Sverdlov told the Sixth Congress in August that the number of organizations had grown from 78 to 162, and he estimated the total strength of the party at 200,000. No information is available on party membership by November, but it may be presumed that a further increase took place, since the very incomplete data on the membership of individual organizations available to the Central Committee Secretariat show an increase after August in the case of a number of organizations.”727

The party’s growth was reflected in a whole number of statistics. The first victory was chalked up in the factory committees. This was important because the factory committees were the organizations that most closely reflected the mood of the workers on the shop floor. The factory committees had sprung up immediately after the February Revolution, as the continuation of the strike committees. They were the cutting edge of the struggle for the eight-hour day, which they frequently introduced by their own initiative. The demand for workers’ control advanced by the Bolsheviks met with a ready response from the factory committees, which in many enterprises introduced control over hiring and firing, formed workers’ militias, and combated the attempts of the bosses to sabotage production.

On May 30–June 3 the first congress of factory committees was held in Petrograd. This was the scene of a bitter clash between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over the role and tasks of the committees. The Mensheviks naturally opposed workers’ control, which clashed with their whole conception of the bourgeois nature of the revolution and the right of the bourgeois to rule. The conference, however, passed the Bolshevik resolution. Lenin took part in this conference, and drafted the resolution On Measures to Cope with Economic Dislocation, which was carried by a big majority. From the summer of 1917, the factory committees in Petrograd, Moscow, and the Urals were solidly Bolshevik.

There was plenty of other evidence that the Bolsheviks were gaining ground. Even in the elections to town councils, the Bolsheviks were obtaining spectacular results. In the local elections in Petrograd, held in August, they increased their number of seats from 37 to 67, and went into second place behind the SRs who numbered 75. The Cadets had 42, but the Mensheviks saw their numbers reduced from 40 to only eight. This clearly shows the swing to the left. Still more surprising were the results of the local elections in Moscow. If we compare the results with those of the elections in June, we get the following:









Social Revolutionaries




















(Source: Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia, 1905–1921, 188)

This is significant because for the first time the Bolsheviks got an absolute majority of votes. The June figures refer to the Moscow City Duma elections, whereas the September figures refer to the ward elections. In the latter the participation was not particularly high (50 percent). However, that does not diminish the importance of the result. It must not be forgotten that elections to parliament and local councils are not the most favorable field for a revolutionary party. It is generally far easier to obtain results in elections to unions or factory committees. This was especially the case in Russia in 1917, when the attention of the masses was concentrated on the Soviets. But still the Bolsheviks, with the aim of reaching the widest layers of society, did not ignore even local elections. The Moscow election result was highly significant because for the first time the Bolsheviks won an absolute majority in an important urban center.

In Petersburg the same trend was visible, although not quite to the same degree as in Moscow. Between August and November the Bolshevik vote went up from 184,000 to 424,000; the SRs went down from 206,000 to 152,000 and the Cadet vote went up from 114,000 to 274,000. Surprisingly, the Mensheviks also increased their vote from 24,000 to 29,000, but this relative rally cannot disguise the fact that they were now a small minority and had practically been almost wiped out as a real force in the working class in the capital.


719 See Keep, Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 142.

720 See Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia, 1905–1921, 189.

721 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 805.

722 See Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia, 1905–1921, 190–91.

723 Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 269.

724 See Keep, Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 101.

725 Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia, 187 and 186.

726 May in the new calendar. Schapiro is referring to the April Conference.

727 Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 171.

133) Tactics of the Insurrection

From his hut in Razliv, Lenin followed the process of the revolution with keen attention, devouring all the reports, statistics, anecdotes, anything that could serve to determine the all-important question: when should the party strike? With his customary meticulousness, he studied the results of every election, every vote in the Soviets, unions and town councils, trying to see what light they cast on the class balance of forces. Lenin did not for a moment forget that election statistics present the correlation of forces in a very partial and distorted manner. But everything pointed to a swift advance of the revolutionary party. The memory of Kornilov’s revolt was still vivid in the minds of the workers and soldiers and the threat of counterrevolution provoked a rapid polarization and radicalization in the Soviets. New elections were taking place everywhere in the Soviets and soldiers organizations at the front. And in almost all of them, the vote for the Bolsheviks registered an astonishing advance. Power was slipping from the hands of the right-wing leaders who had displayed their complete impotence during the emergency. One by one, the Soviets in the main industrial centers changed their allegiance from the Mensheviks and SRs to the Bolsheviks: Petrograd, Finland, the fleet, the northern armies, Moscow and the central industrial area, the Urals.

True, the picture was not uniform. The SRs still held sway in the peasant Soviets and in the front-line regiments. But here also a process of internal differentiation was taking place. A left-wing tendency was rapidly gaining ground inside the Social Revolutionary Party, and in the process of splitting and lining up with the Bolsheviks. The right-wing SRs were strongest in the Black Earth region and in the Central Volga. In the Ukraine they shared control with the left nationalists. But the Mensheviks were losing ground everywhere. Only in their traditional stronghold, the Caucasus, did they manage to keep control of the Soviets which they had dominated all over Russia at the start of the revolution. Such was the balance of forces that determined Lenin’s next step. The Bolsheviks were now the decisive force inside the Soviets. The reformist leaders were isolated and besieged in their final refuge, the Soviet Executive. Was it not time to bring matters to a head, to strike the decisive blow?

Lenin was convinced that the time was ripe, and that any delay could prove fatal. But not all the other party leaders were thinking on the same lines. The party’s top leadership was still profoundly affected by the July defeat, and inclined towards excessive caution. Zinoviev, who had hitherto always followed Lenin’s line, had been badly shaken and now clung to Kamenev, who, as usual, took the road of “moderation.” From the beginning of September Lenin bombarded the Central Committee with letters, insistently demanding that it begin to organize the insurrection. In a letter to the Central Committee dated September 12–14 (25–27), he opens with the words:

The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands.728

Lenin’s letter fell like a bombshell. The Central Committee was so aghast at its content and tone that they actually decided to destroy it, as Bukharin later recalled:

“When I entered, Milyutin came suddenly to meet me and said: ‘You know, Comrade Bukharin, we’ve received a little letter here.’” The letter was read: “We all gasped. No one had yet put the question so sharply. No one knew what to do. Everyone was at a loss for a while. Then we deliberated and came to a decision. Perhaps this was the only time in the history of our party when the Central Committee decided to burn a letter of Comrade Lenin’s.”729

Other letters followed, each one more emphatic than the last:

“What are we doing? We are only passing resolutions. We are losing time. We set ‘dates’ (October 20, the Congress of Soviets—is it not ridiculous to put it off so long? Is it not ridiculous to rely on that?)”

“To ‘wait’ for the Congress of Soviets and so forth under such circumstances would be a betrayal of internationalism, a betrayal of the cause of the world socialist revolution.”

“We must . . . admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our Central Committee and among the leaders of our Party which favors waiting for the Congress of Soviets, and is opposed to taking power immediately, is opposed to an immediate insurrection. That tendency, or opinion, must be overcome. Otherwise, the Bolsheviks will cover themselves with eternal shame and destroy themselves as a party. For to miss such a moment and to ‘wait’ for the Congress of Soviets would be utter idiocy, or sheer treachery.”

Finally, exasperated by the delaying tactics of the CC, Lenin threatened to resign from it and carry the struggle into the ranks of the party:

In view of the fact that the Central Committee has even left unanswered the persistent demands I have been making for such a policy ever since the beginning of the Democratic Conference, in view of the fact that the Central Organ is deleting from my articles all references to such glaring errors on the part of the Bolsheviks as the shameful decision to participate in the Pre-Parliament, the admission of Mensheviks to the presidium of the Soviet, etc., etc.—I am compelled to regard this as a “subtle” hint at the unwillingness of the Central Committee even to consider this question, a subtle hint that I should keep my mouth shut, and as a proposal for me to retire.

I am compelled to tender my resignation from the Central Committee, which I hereby do, reserving for myself freedom to campaign among the rank and file of the Party and at the Party Congress.

For it is my profound conviction that if we “wait” for the Congress of Soviets and let the present moment pass, we shall ruin the revolution.730


728 LCW, The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power, vol. 26, 19.

729 Quoted in Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, 137.

730 LCW, The Crisis has Matured, vol. 26, 69, 81, 82, and 84.

134) Crisis of Leadership

The real reason for Lenin’s insistence on immediate action was his fear that the party leaders would vacillate, would not proceed to prepare to take power and thus miss the opportunity. Once the moment is lost, it may take many years to return. Precisely for this reason a party and a leadership is necessary. Lenin was probably doubtful about the new members of the CC, Joffe and Uritsky, who had come over with the Mezhrayontsi and whom he did not know. Would they not be conciliators? And would Trotsky fall into line with Kamenev and Zinoviev? In his mistrust of the new members of the CC he was mistaken. They stood, like Trotsky, firmly on the left. But the ferocious resistance put up by his old comrades Kamenev, Zinoviev, and, though more guardedly, Stalin, was a bitter blow.

At every decisive turning point there were fierce controversies and polemics in the leadership. Such a controversy broke out over the question of participating in the Democratic Conference. This was a maneuver of the Mensheviks and SRs on the Central Executive of the Soviets who felt that power was slipping from their hands. In theory the Conference was called by the Executive in order to decide the question of power, but in practice it was to throw dust in the eyes of the masses, to divert attention away from the rising tide of revolution and into harmless speechifying and paper projects. The reformist leaders did their best to reduce the representation of the workers and peasants, and heavily weight the Conference in favor of petty bourgeois elements. They were trying to set up an alternative to the Soviets, where their influence was declining by the hour. To Lenin’s disgust, the Bolshevik Central Committee voted to participate in this charade and circulated party organizations to “do their utmost to build up the largest possible well-knit group of delegates from among our Party members.”731

Lenin was more than doubtful about this decision, but grudgingly went along with it, on condition that the Bolsheviks demonstratively separate themselves from all other tendencies and read out a statement to expose the Soviet leaders. The declaration stated that

In struggling for the power in order to realize its program, our party has never desired and does not desire to seize the power against the organized will of the majority of the toiling masses of the country.

Of this statement, Trotsky writes:

That meant: We will take the power as the party of the Soviet majority. Those words about “the organized will of the toiling masses” referred to the coming Congress of Soviets. “Only such decisions and proposals of the present Conference . . . can find their way to realization” said the Declaration, ‘as are recognized by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets . . .”732

The decision to participate in the Democratic Conference was actually a mistake, as Lenin later stated, but a relatively minor one, and easily rectified. Far more serious was the decision of the Bolshevik delegation at the Conference to agree to participate in the so-called pre-parliament that had been agreed there. This was a blunder of the first order. The move to set up a kind of “caretaker government” was a transparent attempt by the reformist leaders to create the impression that Russia now had a parliamentary system, when the pre-parliament was merely an appendage of the bourgeois Provisional Government with only consultative rights. This was clearly a reactionary maneuver. Yet the Bolshevik delegates voted by 77 to 50 to take part in it. This move split the Central Committee, with Trotsky leading the fight to boycott the pre-parliament. Lenin, already worried that the Bolshevik leaders were wasting time, was beside himself with rage and frustration. He flatly demanded that the Bolsheviks withdraw from the pre-parliament and dedicate all their energies to preparing the insurrection.

In a footnote to the article in which he declared the participation in the Democratic Conference to have been a mistake and demanded the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the pre-parliament, Lenin writes:

Trotsky was for the boycott. Bravo, Comrade Trotsky! Boycottism was defeated in the Bolshevik group at the Democratic Conference. Long live the boycott!

We cannot and must not under any circumstances reconcile ourselves to participation. A group at one of the conferences is not the highest organ of the party and even the decisions of the highest organs are subject to revision on the basis of experience.

We must at all costs strive to have the boycott question solved both at a plenary meeting of the Executive Committee and at an extraordinary Party congress. The boycott question must now be made the platform for elections to the Congress and for all elections inside the Party. We must draw the masses into the discussion of this question. Class-conscious workers must take the matter into their own hands, organize the discussion, and exert pressure on “those at the top.”

There is not the slightest doubt that at the “top” of our Party there are noticeable vacillations that may become ruinous, because the struggle is developing; under certain conditions, at a certain moment, vacillations may ruin the cause. We must put all our forces into the struggle, we must uphold the correct line of the party of the revolutionary proletariat before it is too late.

Not all is well with the “parliamentary” leaders of our Party; greater attention must be paid to them, there must be greater workers’ supervision over them; the competency of parliamentary groups must be more clearly defined.

Our Party’s mistake is obvious. The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame.733

Finally, not without a sharp struggle in the CC, in which Kamenev opposed withdrawing from the pre-parliament, Lenin’s advice was accepted and the Bolsheviks walked out on the first day, having first read out a declaration which ended in the cry: “Long live the direct and open struggle for revolutionary power in the country!”

On the day before Trotsky led the Bolsheviks out of the pre-parliament, the Central Committee met, at Lenin’s insistence, to discuss once more the question of insurrection. Given the urgency of the situation, Lenin came from Finland in disguise, complete with actor’s wig. But there was nothing either comic or theatrical about this discussion, upon which hinged the destiny of the revolution. Lenin tore into the compromisers on the CC. The minutes read:

Comrade Lenin maintains that a sort of indifference to the question of insurrection has been noticeable since the beginning of September. But this is impermissible if we are issuing the slogan of the seizure of power by the Soviets in all seriousness. It is therefore high time to pay attention to the technical aspect of the question. Apparently a lot of time has already been lost.734

And he goes on to enumerate the reasons why the Bolsheviks should take power without delay. Significantly, he refers first to the international situation. The news of mutinies in the German fleet, of strikes of the Czech workers, and demonstrations and barricades in Italy indicated that the conditions for revolution were ripening on a world scale: “Take a glance at the international situation. The growth of a world revolution is beyond dispute,” Lenin wrote in his Letter to the Bolshevik Comrades.735

Delay was impermissible because the fate of the revolution was in the balance. Either the Bolsheviks took power, or Kerensky would go onto the offensive against the Soviets. Red Petrograd could be surrendered to the Germans, and the Constituent Assembly put off indefinitely: “What is being done to surrender territory as far as Narva, and to surrender Petrograd makes it still more imperative for us to take decisive action.” And again, the same warning: the masses are tired of words and resolutions. They will begin to see the Bolsheviks as the same as all the other parties if they do not act to take power:

Absenteeism and indifference on the part of the masses is due to their being tired of words and resolutions. We now have the majority behind us. Politically, the situation is fully ripe for taking power.736

How do we explain the crises and vacillations in the Bolshevik leadership during the course of 1917? If we set out from an idealized conception of the Bolshevik Party, this question cannot be answered.

“How could it happen,” asked Trotsky, “that Lenin, whom we have seen at the beginning of April isolated among the leaders of his own party, found himself again solitary in the same group in September and early October?

This cannot be understood if you believe the unintelligent legend which portrays the history of Bolshevism as an emanation of the pure revolutionary idea. In reality Bolshevism developed in a definite social milieu undergoing its heterogeneous influences and among them the influence of a petty bourgeois environment and of cultural backwardness. To each new situation the party adapted itself only by way of an inner crisis.737

It is a law that, as the date of the insurrection approaches, the leadership of the revolutionary party comes under extreme pressure from alien classes, and a section begins to vacillate. The reason for this is not hard to find. The exact appraisal of the mood of the masses is never easy to determine. Given the colossal responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of the leadership in such a moment, the serious risks entailed in every decision, the pressure of bourgeois “public opinion,” nerves are stretched to breaking point and all weaknesses stand cruelly exposed. Yet on the eve of insurrection, weakness and vacillation can be afforded least of all.


731 LCW, vol. 26, 530, note 4.

732 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 836.

733 LCW, From a Publicist’s Diary, vol. 26, 57–58.

734 LCW, Meeting of the Central Committee of the RSDLP(B) October 10 (23), 1917, vol. 26, 188.

735 LCW, Letter to the Bolshevik Comrades Attending the Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region, vol. 26, 182.

736 LCW, Meeting of the Central Committee of the RSDLP(B) October 10 (23), 1917, vol. 26, 188.

737 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 989.