In Defence of October

Study the lessons of the Russian Revolution

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History of the Russian Revolution


The Masses Under Attack

The immediate causes of the events of a revolution are changes in the state-of-mind of the conflicting classes.

The material relations of society merely define the channel within which these processes take place. Changes in the collective consciousness have naturally a semi-concealed character. Only when they have attained a certain degree of intensity do the new moods and ideas break to the surface in the form of mass activities which establish a new, although again very unstable, social equilibrium. The development of a revolution lays bare at each new stage the problem of power, but only to disguise it again immediately afterward – until the hour of a new exposure. A counter-revolution has the same dynamic, except that the picture is reeled off in the opposite direction.

What goes on in the governmental and soviet upper circles is by no means without effect upon the course of events. But it is impossible to understand the real significance of a political party or find your way among the maneuvers of the leaders, without searching out the deep molecular processes in the mind of the mass. In July the workers and soldiers were defeated, but in October with an unconquerable onslaught they seized the power. What happened in their heads during those four months? How did they live through the blows rained upon them from above? With what ideas and feelings did they meet the open attempt at a seizure of power by the bourgeoisie? Here the reader will find it necessary to go back to the July defeat. It is often necessary to step back a few paces in order to make a good leap. And before us is the October leap.

In the official soviet histories the opinion has become established, and been converted into a kind of rubber-stamp, that the July attack upon the party – the combination of repression and slander – went by almost without leaving a trace upon the workers’ organizations. That is utterly untrue. The decline in the ranks of the party and the ebbing away of workers and soldiers did not, to be sure, last very long – not longer than a few weeks. The revival began so quickly – and what is more important, so boisterously – that it more than half wiped out the memory of the days of persecution and decline. Victories always throw a new light upon the defeats which led up to them. But in proportion as the minutes of local party organizations begin to be published, the picture emerges more and more sharply of a July decline of the revolution – a thing which was felt in those days the more painfully in proportion as the preceding upward swing had been uninterrupted.

Every defeat, resulting as it does from a definite correlation of forces, changes that correlation in its turn to the disadvantage of the vanquished, for the victor gains in self-confidence and the vanquished loses faith in himself. Moreover this or that estimate of one’s own forces constitutes an extremely important element in the objective correlation of forces. A direct defeat was experienced by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, who in their urge forward had come up against the confusedness and contradictions in their own aims, on the one hand, and on the other, the backwardness of the provinces and the front. It was in the capital, therefore, that the consequences of the defeat revealed themselves first and most sharply. The assertion is also untrue, however – although as frequently to be found in the official literature – that for the provinces the July defeat passed almost unnoticed. This is both theoretically improbable, and refuted by the testimony of facts and documents. Whenever great questions arose, the whole country involuntarily and always looked toward Petrograd. The defeat of the workers and soldiers of the capital was therefore bound to produce an enormous impression, and especially upon the more advanced layers of the provinces. Fright, disappointment, apathy, flowed down differently in different parts of the country, but they were to be observed everywhere.

The lowered pressure of the revolution expressed itself first of all in an extraordinary weakening of the resistance of the masses to the enemy. While the troops brought into Petrograd were carrying out official punitive activities in the way of disarming soldiers and workers, semi-volunteer gangs under their protection were attacking with impunity the workers’ organizations. After the raid on the editorial rooms of Pravda and the printing plant of the Bolsheviks, the headquarters of the metal workers’ union was raided. The next blow fell upon the district soviets. Even the Compromisers were not spared. On the 10th, one of the institutions of the party led by the Minister of the Interior, Tseretelli, was attacked. It required no small amount of self-abnegation on the part of Dan to write on the subject of the arriving soldiers: “Instead of the ruin of the revolution, we are now witnessing its new triumph.” This triumph went so far that – in the words of the Menshevik, Prushitsky – passers-by on the streets, if they happened to look like workers or be suspected of Bolshevism, were in danger at any moment of cruel beatings. Could there be a more unmistakable symptom of a sharp change in the whole situation?

A member of the Petrograd committee of the Bolsheviks, Latsis – subsequently a well-known member of the “Cheka” – wrote in his diary: “July 9. All our printing plants in the city are destroyed. Nobody dares print our papers and leaflets. We are compelled to set up an underground press. The Vyborg district has become an asylum for all. Here have come both the Petrograd committee and the persecuted members of the Central Committee. In the watchman’s room of the Renaud factory there is a conference of the committee with Lenin. The question is raised of a general strike. A division occurs in the committee. I stand for calling the strike. Lenin, after explaining the situation, moves that we abandon it ... July 12. The counter-revolution is victorious. The soviets are without power. The junkers, running wild, have begun to raid the Mensheviks too. In some sections of the party there is a loss of confidence. The influx of members has stopped ... But there is not as yet a flight from our ranks.” After the July Days “there was a strong Social Revolutionary influence in the Petersburg factories,” writes the worker, Sisko. The isolation of the Bolsheviks automatically increased the weight and self-confidence of the Compromisers. On July 16, a delegate from Vassillievsky Ostrov reported at a Bolshevik city conference that the mood in his district was “in general” hearty, with the exception of a few factories. “In the Baltic factories the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks are crowding us out.” Here the thing went very far: the factory committee decreed that the Bolsheviks attend the funeral of the slain Cossacks, and this they did ... The official loss of membership of the party was, to be sure, insignificant. In the whole district, out of four thousand members not more than a hundred openly withdrew. But a far greater number in those first days quietly stood apart. “The July Days,” a worker, Minichev, subsequently remembered, “showed us that in our ranks too there were people who, fearing for their own skin, ’chewed up’ their party cards, and denied all connection with the party.” “But there were not many of them he adds reassuringly. “The July events,” writes Shliapnikov, “and the whole accompanying campaign of violence and slander against our organization interrupted that growth of our influence which by the beginning of July had reached enormous proportions ... The very party became semi-illegal, and had to wage a defensive struggle, relying in the main upon the trade unions and the shop and factory committees.”

The charge that the Bolsheviks were in the service of Germany could not but create an impression even upon the Petrograd workers-at least upon a considerable number of them. Those who had been wavering, drew off. Those who were about to join, wavered. Even of those who had already joined, a considerable number withdrew. Together with the Bolsheviks a large part had been played in the July demonstrations by workers belonging to the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. After the blow they were the first to jump back under the banners of their own parties. It now seemed to them that in violating party discipline they had really made a mistake. Broad layers of non-party workers, travelling companions of the party, also stepped away from it under the influence of that officially proclaimed and juridically embellished slander.

In this changed political atmosphere the repressive blows produced a redoubled effect. Olga Ravich, one of the old and active workers of the party, a member of the Petrograd committee, subsequently stated in a report: “The July Days brought such a break-up of the organization that for the first three weeks afterward there could be no talk of any kind of activities.” Ravich here has in view, for the most part, public activities of the party. For a long time it was impossible to arrange for the issue of the party paper; there were no printing plants which would agree to serve the Bolsheviks. The resistance here did not always come from the owners, either. In one printing plant the workers threatened to stop work if Bolshevik papers were printed, and the proprietor tore up a contract already concluded. For a certain period of time Petrograd was supplied by the Kronstadt paper.

The extreme Left Wing upon the open arena during those weeks was the group called “Menshevik-Internationalists.” The workers eagerly listened to the speeches of Martov, whose fighting instinct woke up in this period of retreat when it was not necessary to lay out new roads for the revolution, but only to fight for what remained of its conquests. Martov’s courage was the courage of pessimism. He said at a session of the Executive Committee: “It seems as though they had put a full stop to the revolution. If it has got so that ... there is no place in the Russian revolution for the voice of the peasantry and the workers, then let us make our exit honorably. Let us accept this challenge not with silent renunciation, but with honest fighting.” This proposal to make their exit with honest fighting, Martov made to those party comrades of his, such as Dan and Tseretelli, who regarded the victory of the generals and Cossacks over the workers and soldiers as a victory of the revolution over anarchy. On a background of unrestrained Bolshevik-baiting and continuous belly-crawling by the Compromisers before Cossack trouser-stripes, the conduct of Martov raised him high during those weeks in the eyes of the workers.

The July crisis struck an especially damaging blow at the Petrograd garrison. The soldiers were far behind the workers politically. The soldiers’ section of the Soviet remained a bulwark of compromisism after the workers had gone over to the Bolsheviks. This is not in the least contradicted by the fact that the soldiers showed a remarkable readiness to get out their guns. In demonstrations they would play a far more aggressive rôle than the workers, but under blows they would retreat much farther. The wave of hostility against Bolshevism swept up very high in the Petrograd garrison. “After the defeat,” says the former soldier, Mitrevich, “I did not show up in my regiment, as I might have been killed there before the squall passed.” It was exactly in those more revolutionary regiments which had marched in the front rank in the July Days, and therefore received the most furious blows, that the influence of the party fell lowest. It fell so low that even three months later it was impossible to revive the organization. It was as though these units had been morally disintegrated by too strong a shock. The Military Organization was compelled to draw in very decidedly. “After the July defeat,” writes a former soldier, Minichev, “not only in the upper circles of our party, but also in some of the district committees, the comrades were none too friendly toward the Military Organization.” In Kronstadt the party lost about 250 members. The mood of the garrison of this Bolshevik fortress declined vastly. The reaction also spread to Helsingfors. Avksentiev, Bunakov, and the lawyer, Sokolov, went up there to bring the Bolshevik ships to repentance. They achieved certain results. By arresting the leading Bolsheviks, by playing up the official slander, by threats, they succeeded in getting a declaration of loyalty even from the Bolshevik battleship, Petropavlovsk. Their demand for the surrender of the “instigators” was rejected, however, by all the ships.

It was not greatly different in Moscow. “The attacks of the bourgeois press,” remembers Piatnitsky, “produced a panic even in certain members of the Moscow committee.” The organization weakened numerically after the July Days. “I will never forget,” writes the Moscow worker, Ratekhin, “one mortally hard moment. A plenary session was assembling (of the Zamoskvoretsky district soviet) ... I saw there were none too many of our comrade Bolsheviks ... Steklov, one of the energetic comrades, came right up close to me and, barely enunciating the words, asked: ‘Is it true they brought Lenin and Zinoviev in a sealed train? Is it true they are working on German money ...?’ My heart sank with pain when I heard those questions. Another comrade came up – Konstantinov: ’Where is Lenin? He has beat it, they say ... What will happen now?’ And so it went.” This living picture introduces us correctly to the experience of the advanced workers of that time. “The appearance of the documents published by Alexinsky,” writes the Moscow artillerist, Davidovsky, “produced a terrible confusion in the brigade. Even our battery, the most Bolshevik, wavered under the blow of this cowardly lie ... It seemed as though we had lost all faith.”

“After the July Days,” writes V. Yakovleva, at that time a member of the Central Committee and a leader of the work in the extensive Moscow region, “all the reports from the localities described with one voice not only a sharp decline in the mood of the masses, but even a definite hostility to our party. In a good number of cases our speakers were beaten up. The membership fell off rapidly, and several organizations, especially in the southern provinces, even ceased to exist entirely.” By the middle of August no noticeable change for the better had taken place. Work was going on among the masses to sustain the influence of the party, but no growth of the organization was observable. In Riazan and Tambov provinces, no new bonds were established, no new Bolshevik nuclei arose. In general, these were the domains of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.

Evreinov, who directed the work in proletarian Kineshma, remembers what a difficult situation arose after the July events, when at a grand conference of all social organizations the question was put of expelling the Bolsheviks from the soviets. The efflux from the party in some cases reached such a scale that only after a new registration of members could the organization begin to live a proper life. In Tula, thanks to a preliminary serious selection of workers, the organization did not experience a loss of members, but its solidarity with the masses weakened. In Nizhni-Novgorod, after the punitive campaign under the leadership of Colonel Verkhovsky and the Menshevik Khinchuk, a sharp decline set in: at the elections to the city duma the party carried only four deputies. In Kaluga the Bolshevik faction took under consideration the possibility of its being expelled from the soviets. At certain points in the Moscow region the Bolsheviks were obliged to withdraw not only from the soviets, but also from the trade unions.

In Saratov, where the Bolsheviks had kept up very peaceful relations with the Compromisers, and even at the end of June were intending to nominate common candidates with them for the city duma, the soldiers were to such a point incited against the Bolsheviks after the July storm that they would break into campaign meetings, tear the Bolshevik bulletins from people’s hands, and beat up their agitators. “It became difficult,” writes Lebedev, “to speak at election meetings. They would often yell at us: ‘German spies! Provocateurs!’” Among the Saratov Bolsheviks the faint-hearted were numerous: “Many announced their resignation, others went into hiding.”

In Kiev, which had long been famous as a Black Hundred center, the baiting of Bolsheviks took on an especially unbridled character, soon even including Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The decline of the revolutionary movement was here felt especially. At the elections to the local duma the Bolsheviks received only 6 per cent of the votes. At a city conference the speakers complained that apathy and inactivity were to be felt everywhere. The party paper was compelled to abandon daily for weekly publication.

The disbandment and transfer of the more revolutionary regiments must in itself not only have lowered the political level of the garrisons, but also grievously affected the local workers, who had felt firmer when friendly troops were standing behind their backs. Thus the removal from Tver of the 57th regiment abruptly changed the political situation both among the soldiers and the workers. Even among the trade unions the influence of the Bolsheviks became negligible. This was still more evident in Tiflis, where the Mensheviks, working hand in hand with the staff, replaced the Bolshevik units with wholly colorless regiments.

At certain points, owing to the constitution of the garrison, the level of the local workers, and other causes accidentally intervening, the political reaction took a paradoxical form. In Yaroslavl, for example, the Bolsheviks were almost completely crowded out of the workers’ soviet in July, but kept their predominant influence in the soviet of soldiers’ deputies. In certain individual localities, moreover, the July events did seem to pass without effect, not stopping the growth of the party. So far as we can judge, this occurred in those cases where an arrival upon the revolutionary arena of new backward strata coincided with the general retreat. Thus in certain textile districts a considerable influx of women workers into the organization was to be observed in July. But these cases do not alter the general fact of the decline.

The indubitable and even exaggerated acuteness of this reaction to a partial defeat, was in some sense a payment made by the workers, and yet more the soldiers, for their too smooth, too rapid, too uninterrupted flow to the Bolsheviks during the preceding months. This sharp turn in the mood of the masses produced an automatic, and moreover an unerring, selection within the cadres of the party. Those who did not tremble in those days could be relied on absolutely in what was to come. They constituted a nucleus in the shops, in the factories, in the districts. On the eve of October in making appointments and allotting tasks, the organizers would glance round many a time calling to mind who bore himself how in the July Days.

On the front, where all relations are more naked, the July reaction was especially fierce. The staff made use of the events chiefly in order to create special units of “Duty to the Free Fatherland.” Each regiment would organize its own shock companies. “I often saw these shock companies,” Denikin relates, “and they were always tense and gloomy. The attitude of the rest of the regiment to them was aloof or even hostile.” The soldiers rightly saw in these “Divisions of Duty” the nuclei of a Praetorian guard. “The reaction went fast,” relates the Social Revolutionary, Degtyarev, who subsequently joined the Bolsheviks. He is speaking of the backward Rumanian front: “Many soldiers were arrested as deserters. The officers lifted their chins and began to ignore the army committees. In some places the officers tried to restore the salute.” The commissars carried out a purgation of the army. “Almost every division,” writes Stankevich, “had its Bolshevik with his name better known in the army than that of the chief of the division ... We gradually removed one celebrity after another.” The unsubmissive units were disarmed simultaneously throughout the entire front. In this operation the commanders and commissars relied upon the Cossacks and upon those special companies so hateful to the soldiers.

On the day Riga fell, a conference of the commissars of the Northern front with representatives of the army organizations, declared necessary a more systematic application of severe measures of repression. Some soldiers were shot for fraternizing with the Germans. Many of the commissars, pumping up their nerve with hazy recollections of the French revolution, tried to show the iron fist. They did not understand that the Jacobin commissars were relying upon the lower ranks; they were not sparing the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie; only the authority of a plebeian ruthlessness nerved them to the introduction of severe discipline in the army. These commissars of Kerensky had no popular support under them, no moral halo about their heads. In the eyes of the soldiers they were agents of the bourgeoisie, cattle-drivers of the Entente, and nothing more. They could frighten the army for a time – this indeed to a certain extent they actually did-but they were powerless to resurrect it.

It was reported in the bureau of the Executive Committee in Petrograd at the beginning of August that a favorable change had occurred in the mood of the army, that drilling activities were getting under way. But on the other hand, an increasing tyranny was observable, increasing acts of despotism and oppression. The question of the officers was becoming especially critical. “They were completely isolated, and formed a closed organization of their own.” Other testimony bears out the fact that externally a greater order was being established at the front – the soldiers had ceased to rebel about petty and accidental things – but their dissatisfaction with the situation as a whole was only the more intense. In the cautious and diplomatic speech of the Menshevik, Kuchin, at the State Conference, an alarmed warning could be heard underneath the note of reassurance. “There is an indubitable tranquillity,” he said, “but there is also something else. There is a feeling of something like disappointment, and of this feeling also we are extremely afraid ...” The temporary victory over the Bolsheviks had been first of all a victory over the new hopes of the soldiers, over their faith in a better future. The masses had become more cautious, they had acquired a certain amount of discipline. But the gulf between the rulers and the soldiers had deepened. What and whom will it swallow up tomorrow?

The July reaction established a kind of decisive water-shed between the February and October revolutions. The workers, the garrisons at the rear, the front – in part even, as will appear later, the peasantry – recoiled and jumped back as though from a blow in the solar plexus. The blow was in reality psychological rather than physical, but it was no less real for that. During the first four months all the mass processes had moved in one direction – to the left. Bolshevism had grown, strengthened, and become bold. But now the movement had run into a stone wall. In reality it had only become clear that further progress along the road of the February revolution was impossible. Many thought that the revolution in general had exhausted itself. The February revolution had indeed exhausted itself to the bottom. This inner crisis in the mass consciousness, combining with the slanders and measures of repression, caused confusion and retreat – in some cases panic. The enemy grew bolder. In the masses themselves all the backward and dubious elements rose to the surface, those impatient of disturbances and deprivations. These receding waves in the flood of the revolution developed an overwhelming force. It seemed as though they were obeying the fundamental laws of social hydrodynamics. You cannot conquer such a wave head on – it is necessary to give way to it, not let it swamp you. Hold out until the wave of reaction has exhausted itself, preparing in the meantime points of support for a new advance.

Observing certain individual regiments which on July 3rd had marched under Bolshevik banners and a week later were calling down awful punishments upon the agents of the Kaiser, educated sceptics might have exulted, it would seem, in a complete victory: Such are your masses, such is their stability and comprehension! But that is a cheap scepticism. If the masses really did change their feelings and thoughts under the influence of accidental circumstances, then that mighty obedience to natural law which characterizes the development of great revolutions would be inexplicable. The deeper the popular millions are caught up by a revolution, and the more regular therefore is its development, the more confidently can you predict the sequence of its further stages. Only in doing this you must remember that the political development of the masses proceeds not in a direct line, but in a complicated curve. And is not this, after all, the essential movement of every material process? Objective conditions were powerfully impelling the workers, soldiers and peasants toward the banners of the Bolsheviks, but the masses were entering upon this path in a state of struggle with their own past, with their yesterday’s beliefs, and partly also with their beliefs of today. At a difficult turn, at a moment of failure and disappointment, the old prejudices not yet burnt out would flare up, and the enemy would naturally seize upon these as upon an anchor of salvation. Everything about the Bolsheviks which was unclear, unusual, puzzling – the novelty of their thoughts, their audacity, their contempt for all old and new authorities – all this now suddenly acquired one simple explanation, convincing in its very absurdity: They are German spies! In advancing this accusation against the Bolsheviks, the enemy were really staking their game upon the enslaved past of the people, upon the relics among them of darkness, barbarism, superstition. And it was no fatuous game to play. That gigantic patriotic lie remained throughout July and August a political factor of primary importance, playing its accompaniment to all the questions of the day. The ripples of slander spread out over the whole country, carried by the Kadet press, swallowing up the provinces, the frontiers, penetrating even into the remotest backwoods. At the end of July the Ivanovo-Voznesensk organization of the Bolsheviks was still demanding a more energetic campaign against slander. The question of the relative weight of slander in a political struggle in civilized society still awaits its sociologist.

And yet the reaction among the workers and soldiers, although nervous and impetuous, was neither deep nor lasting. The more advanced factories in Petrograd began to recover in the very next days after the raids. They protested against arrests and slanders, they came knocking on the doors of the Executive Committee; they restored their lines of communication. At the Sestroretsk arms factory, which had been stormed and disarmed, the workers soon had the helm again in their hands: a general meeting on July 20 resolved that the workers must be paid for the days of the demonstration, and that the pay should be used entirely in supplying literature to the front. The open agitational work of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd began again, according to the testimony of Olga Ravich, between the 20th and 30th of July. At meetings comprising no more than 200 or 300 people, three men began to appear in different parts of the city: Slutsky, later killed by the Whites in the Crimea, Volodarsky, killed by the Social Revolutionaries in Petrograd, and Yefdokimov, a Petrograd metal worker, one of the ablest orators of the revolution. In August the educational work of the party acquired a broader scope. According to the notes of Raskolnikov, Trotsky, when arrested on the 23rd of July, gave those in prison the following picture of the situation in the city: “The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries are continuing their insane baiting of the Bolsheviks. The arrests of our comrades continue, but there is no gloom in party circles. On the contrary, everybody is looking to the future with hope, calculating that the repressions will only strengthen the popularity of the party ... In the workers’ districts no loss of spirit is to be observed.” And it is true that a meeting of the workers of 27 plants in the Peterhoff district passed soon after that a resolution of protest against the irresponsible government and its counter-revolutionary policy. The proletarian districts were fast coming to life.

During those very days when up on top, in the Winter Palace or the Tauride, they were creating new Coalitions, tearing them up, and then pasting them together again – in those same days, and even hours, of the 21st and 22nd of July, a gigantic event was taking place in Petrograd, an event hardly noticed in the official sphere, but which signified the formation of another, more solid coalition – a coalition of the Petrograd workers with the soldiers of the active army. Delegates from the front had begun to arrive in the capital with protests from their regiments against the strangling of the revolution at the front. For some days these delegates had been knocking in vain at the doors of the Executive Committee. The Committee did not admit them. It turned them away and recoiled from them. Meanwhile new delegates had been arriving, and following the same course. All these repulsed soldiers would run into each other in the corridors and reception rooms, would complain, abuse the Committee, and then seek some common way out. In this they would be helped by the Bolsheviks. The delegates would decide to exchange thoughts with the workers of the capital, with the soldiers and sailors. And these would meet them with open arms, give them shelter and feed them. At a conference which nobody summoned from above but which grew up spontaneously from below, representatives were present from 29 regiments at the front, from 90 Petrograd factories, from the Kronstadt sailors, and from the surrounding garrisons. At the focus of the conference stood the trench delegates – among them a number of young officers. The Petersburg workers listened to the men from the front eagerly, trying not to let fall a word of their own. The latter told how the offensive and its consequences had devoured the revolution. Those gray soldiers – not in any sense agitators – painted in unstudied words the workaday life of the front. The details were disturbing – they demonstrated so nakedly how everything was crawling back to the old, hateful, pre-revolutionary régime. The contrast between the hopes of yesterday and today’s reality struck home to every man there and brought them all to one mood. Although Social Revolutionaries obviously predominated among the men from the front, a drastic Bolshevik resolution was passed almost unanimously: only three men abstained from the voting. That resolution will not remain a dead letter. The dispersing delegates will tell the truth about how the compromise leaders repulsed them, and how the workers received them. And the trenches will believe their delegates. These men would not deceive them.

In the Petrograd garrison itself the beginning of a break was evident toward the end of the month – especially evident after those meetings participated in by delegates from the front. Of course the more heavily stricken regiments could not so soon recover from their apathy. But on the other hand in those units which had preserved longest the patriotic attitude, submitting to discipline throughout the first months of the revolution, the influence of the party was noticeably growing. The Military Organization, which had suffered especially from the persecution, began to get on its feet. As always after a defeat, they looked unfavorably in party circles on the leaders of the military work, laying up against them both actual and imaginary mistakes and deviations. The Central Committee drew the Military Organization closer under its wing, established a more direct control over it through Sverdlov and Dzerzhinsky, and the work got under way again, more slowly than before but more reliably.

By the end of July the position of the Bolsheviks in the Petrograd factories was already restored. The workers were united under the same banners, but they were now different workers, more mature – that is, more cautious but at the same time more resolute. “We have a colossal, an unlimited influence in the factories,” reported Volodarsky to a congress of the Bolsheviks on July 27. “The party work is carried out chiefly by the workers themselves ... The organization has grown from below, and we have every reason to believe therefore that it will not disintegrate.” The Union of Youth had at that time 50,000 members, and was coming continually more and more under the influence of the Bolsheviks. On August 7 the workers’ section of the Soviet adopted a resolution demanding the abolition of the death penalty. In sign of protest against the State Conference, the Putilov workers set aside a day’s wages for the workers’ press. At a conference of factory and shop committees, a resolution was passed unanimously declaring the Moscow Conference “an attempt to organize the counter-revolutionary forces.”

Kronstadt was healing its wounds. On July 20, a meeting in Yakorny Square demanded the transfer of power to the soviets, the sending of the Cossacks to the front together with the gendarmes and police, the abolition of the death penalty, the admission of Kronstadt delegates to Tsarskoe Selo to make sure that Nicholas II was adequately guarded, the disbandment of the battalions of death, the confiscation of the bourgeois newspapers, etc. At about the same time the new admiral, Tyrkov, on taking command of the fortress had ordered the red flags lowered on military vessels and the Andreievsky flag raised; the officers and a part of the soldiers had put on chevrons. The Kronstadters protested against this. A government commission to investigate the events of July 3-5 was compelled to return from Kronstadt without results: it was met with hisses, protests and even threats.

A shift was occurring throughout the whole fleet. “At the end of July and the beginning of August,” writes one of the Finland leaders, Zalezhsky, “it was clearly felt that the outside reaction had not only not broken the revolutionary strength of Helsingfors, but on the contrary there was to be observed here a sharp shift to the left and a broad growth of sympathy for the Bolsheviks.” The sailors had been to a considerable degree the instigators of the July movement, acting over the head of, and to an extent against the will of the party, which they suspected of moderation and almost of compromisism. The experience of the armed demonstration had shown them that the question of power is not so easily solved. Semi-anarchistic moods had now given place to a confidence in the party. Upon this theme the report of a Helsingfors delegate at the end of July is very interesting: “On the small vessels the influence of the Social Revolutionaries prevails, but on the big battleships, cruisers and destroyers, all the sailors are either Bolsheviks or Bolshevik sympathizers. This was (even before) the attitude of the sailors on the Petropavlovsk and the Republic, but since July 3-5 there have come over to us the Gangut, the Sebastopol, the Rurik, the Andrei Pervozvanny, the Diana, the Gromoboi, and the India. Thus we have in our hands a colossal fighting force ... The events of July 3-5 taught the sailors many things, showing them that a mere state of mind is not sufficient for the attainment of a goal.”

Although lagging behind Petrograd, Moscow was travelling the same road. “The fumes began gradually to clear up,” relates the artillerist Davidovsy. “The soldier masses began to come to themselves, and we again took the offensive all along the line. That lie which stopped for a time the leftward movement of the masses afterward only reinforced their rush to us.” Under blows the friendship between factory and barrack had grown closer. A Moscow worker, Strelkov, tells about the close relation gradually established between the Michaelson factory and a neighboring regiment. The workers’ and soldiers’ committees often decided at joint sessions the practical life-questions of both factory and regiment. The workers arranged cultural and educational evenings for the soldiers, bought them the Bolshevik papers, and gave them help in all kinds of ways. “If somebody was disciplined,” says Strelkov, “they would come immediately to us to complain. During the street meetings, if a Michaelson man was insulted anywhere, it was enough for one soldier to hear of it, and they would come running in whole groups to protect him. And there were many insults in those days; they baited us with talk of German gold, treason and the whole vile compromisist lie.”

The Moscow conference of factory and shop committees at the end of July opened on a moderate note, but swung strongly to the left during the week of its labors, and towards the end adopted a resolution quite obviously tinged with Bolshevism. In those same days a Moscow delegate, Podbelsky, reported to a party conference: “Six district soviets out of ten are in our hands ...Under the present organized slanderous attacks only the worker mass which firmly supports Bolshevism is saving us.” At the beginning of August, in elections at the Moscow factories Bolsheviks were already getting elected in place of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The growth of the party’s influence became boisterously evident in the general strike on the eve of the Conference. The official Moscow Izvestia wrote: “It is time to understand at last that the Bolsheviks are not an irresponsible group, but one of the divisions of the organized revolutionary democracy, and that broad masses stand behind them, not always disciplined perhaps, but nevertheless devotedly loyal to the revolution.”

The July weakening of the position of the proletariat gave courage to the industrialists. A conference of thirteen of the most important business organizations, including the banks, formed a Committee for the Defense of Industry, which took upon itself the leadership of the lockouts and of the whole political offensive against the revolution. The workers put up a resistance. A wave of big strikes and other conflicts swept over the whole country. While the more experienced ranks of the proletariat moved cautiously, the new and fresh layers went the more resolutely into the fight. The metal workers were waiting and getting ready, but the textile workers and the workers of the rubber, leather and paper industries were rushing into the arena. The most backward and submissive strata of the laboring population were beginning to rise. Kiev was disturbed by a riotous strike of the night-watchmen and janitors. Making the rounds of the houses, the strikers put out lights, removed keys from elevators, opened street doors, etc., etc. Every conflict, no matter upon what theme it arose, showed a tendency to spread to the whole given branch of industry and become a struggle about principles. With the support of labor throughout the whole country, the leather-workers of Moscow started in August a long and stubborn fight for the right of the factory committees to employ and discharge men. In many instances, especially in the provinces, the strikes were very dramatic, going even to the point of arrests by the strikers of the managers and executives. The government preached self-restraint to the workers, formed a coalition with the capitalists, sent the Cossacks to the Don basin, and doubled the prices of bread and of military supplies. While raising the indignation of the workers to white heat, this policy did not satisfy the capitalists. “The commissars of labor in the localities,” complains Auerbach, one of the captains of heavy industry, “had not yet seen the light which had come to Skobelev ... In the ministry itself ... they did not trust their own provincial agents ... They would summon representatives of the workers to Petrograd and in the Marble Palace scold them and try to persuade and reconcile them with the industrialists and engineers.” But all this came to nothing: “The laboring masses were by this time steadily falling under the influence of the more resolute leaders and those unashamed in their demagoguism.”

Economic defeatism became the chief weapon of the industrialists against the dual power in the factories. At a conference of factory and shop committees during the first half of August, the sabotage policy of the industrialists aiming at a disorganization and stoppage of production was exposed in detail. Aside from financial machinations, there was a general resort to the concealment of raw materials, the closing of tool and repair shops, etc. An illuminating testimony as to the sabotage of the capitalists is given by John Reed, who had access as an American correspondent to the most heterogeneous circles, having credentials from the diplomatic agents of the Entente, and who listened to frank confessions from the Russian bourgeois politicians. “The secretary of the Petrograd branch of the Kadet Party,” writes Reed, “told me that the breakdown of the country’s economic life was part of a campaign to discredit the revolution. An Allied diplomat, whose name I promised not to mention, confirmed this from his own knowledge. I know of certain coal mines near Kharkov which were fired and flooded by the owners, of textile factories at Moscow whose engineers put the machinery out of order when they left, of railroad officials caught by the workers in the act of crippling the locomotives.” Such was the cruel economic reality. It corresponded not to the compromisist illusions, not to the politics of the Coalition, but to the preparation of the Kornilov uprising.

At the front the sacred union got along about as badly as at the rear. Arrests of individual Bolsheviks, complains Stankevich, did not settle the question. “Criminality was in the air; its contours were not sharply defined because the whole mass was infected with it.” If the soldiers had become more restrained, it was only because they had learned to a certain extent to discipline their hatred; when the dams broke their feelings were only the more clearly revealed. One of the companies of the Dubensky regiment, when ordered to disband for refusing to recognize a newly appointed company commander, induced several other companies and finally the whole regiment to mutiny, and when the regiment commander made an attempt to restore order by force of arms, they killed him with the butts of their rifles. That happened on July 31. If it did not go so far as that in other regiments, the commanding staffs nevertheless felt inwardly that it might do so at any moment.

In the middle of August, General Sherbachev reported to headquarters: “The mood of the infantry, with the exception of the battalions of death, is very unstable. Sometimes in the course of a few days the attitude of certain infantry units will swing sharply to its diametric opposite.” Many of the commissars were beginning to understand that the July methods would solve nothing. On August 22, the commissar Yamandt reported: “The practice of military revolutionary court-martial on the western front is causing a dreadful disaccord between the commanding staff and the mass of the population, discrediting the very idea of these courts ...” The Kornilov program of salvation had already, before the revolt of headquarters, been sufficiently tried out, and had led into the same blind alley.

What the possessing classes feared most of all was the specter of a disintegration of the Cossacks. Here the last bulwark threatened to give way. In February the Cossack regiments in Petrograd had surrendered the monarchy without resistance. In their own country, to be sure, in Novocherkassk, the Cossack authorities had tried to conceal the telegram about the revolution, and had carried out with the usual solemnity the March 1st mass in memory of Alexander II. But in the long run the Cossacks were willing to get along without the tzar, and had even managed to dig up republican traditions in their own past. But farther than this they would not go. From the beginning the Cossacks refused to send their deputies to the Petrograd soviet in order not to put themselves on a level with the workers and soldiers; and they formed a soviet of the Cossack armies which brought together all the twelve Cossackdoms in the person of their rear commanders. The bourgeoisie tried, and not without success, to base upon the Cossacks their plans against the workers and peasants.

The political rôle of these Cossacks was determined by their special situation in the state. The Cossacks had from long ago been a unique privileged caste of a lower order. The Cossacks paid no taxes and enjoyed a considerably larger land allotment than the peasant. In the three neighboring territories, Don, Kuban and Tver, the Cossack population of 3 million owned 23 million dessiatins of land, while the 4.3 million peasants in the same territories owned only 6 million dessiatins. The Cossacks owned on the average, that is, five times as much per capita as the peasants. Among the Cossacks themselves the land was divided, to be sure, very unequally. They had here their landlords and Kulaks, even more powerful than in the North; they had also their poor. Every Cossack was obliged to present himself at the demand of the state on his own horse and with his own equipment. The rich Cossacks more than covered this expense with their freedom from taxes; but the lower ranks were bowed down under the burden of this liability to service. These fundamental data sufficiently explain the self-contradictory position of the Cossackdom as a whole. In its lower strata it came in close contact with the peasantry; in its upper, with the landlords. At the same time the upper and lower strata were united by a consciousness of their special situation, their position as a chosen people, and were accustomed to look down not only upon the worker but also upon the peasant. This was what made the middle Cossack so useful for putting down revolts.

During the years of the war, when the younger generations were at the front, the old men, carrying conservative traditions and closely bound up with their officers, became the bosses. Under the pretext of a resurrection of Cossack democracy, the Cossack landlords during the first months of the revolution summoned the so – called “troop rings” which elected atamans – presidents of a kind – and under them “troop governments.” The official commissars and soviets of the non-Cossack population had no power in the Cossack territories, for the Cossacks were stronger, richer and better armed. The Social Revolutionaries tried to form common soviets of peasant and Cossack deputies, but the Cossacks would not consent, since they feared, rightly enough, that an agrarian revolution would take away a part of their land. It was no empty phrase that Chernov let fall as Minister of Agriculture: “It will be necessary for the Cossacks to make a little room on their lands.” Still more important was the fact that the local peasants and infantry soldiers were themselves oftener and oftener addressing such remarks as this to the Cossacks: “We will get at your land, you have bossed things long enough.” That was the aspect of affairs at the rear, in the Cossack villages – partly also in the Petrograd garrison, the political focus. And that explains the conduct of the Cossack regiments in the July demonstration.

On the front the situation was essentially different. In the summer of 1917 there were 162 regiments in the active Cossack army, and 171 separate squadrons. Torn away from their village connections, the Cossacks at the front shared the experiences of the war with the whole army, and they passed through, although somewhat belatedly, the same evolution as the infantry – lost faith in the victory, became embittered at the insane confusion, grumbled against the command, got to longing for peace and for home. As many as 45 regiments and 65 squadrons were gradually drawn away for police duty at the front and in the rear! The Cossacks had again been turned into gendarmes. The soldiers, workers and peasants grumbled against them, reminding them of their hangman’s work in 1905. Many of the Cossacks, who had begun to enjoy a pride in their conduct in February, began to feel a gnawing at the heart. The Cossack began to curse his whip, and would often refuse to include a whip in his equipment. There were not many deserters, though, among the Don and Kuban Cossacks; they were afraid of their old men in the village. In general the Cossack units remained considerably longer in control of the officers than the infantry.

From the Don and the Kuban news came to the front that the Cossack chiefs, along with the old men, had set up their own government without asking the Cossacks at the front. This awakened sleeping social antagonisms: “We will show them when we get home,” the men at the front would say. The Cossack general, Krasnov, one of the leaders of the counter-revolution on the Don, has vividly described how the strong Cossack units at the front were gradually torn asunder: “Meetings began to be held and they would pass the wildest resolutions ... The Cossacks stopped cleaning and feeding their horses regularly. There was no thought of any kind of serious occupation. The Cossacks decorated themselves with crimson bands, decked themselves out with red ribbon, and would not hear of any kind of respect for their officers.” Before finally arriving at this condition, however, the Cossack had long hesitated, scratching his head and wondering which way to turn. At a critical moment, therefore, it was not easy to guess how this or that Cossack unit would behave.

On August 8 the troop ring on the Don formed a bloc with the Kadets for the elections to the Constituent Assembly. News of this immediately reached the army. “Among the Cossacks,” writes the Cossack officer Yanov, “this bloc was greeted very adversely. The Kadet Party had no roots in the army.” As a matter-of-fact the army hated the Kadets, identifying them with everything that was strangling the popular masses. “The old folks have sold you out to the Kadets,” the soldiers would tease them. “We will show them!” the Cossacks would reply. On the Southwestern front the Cossack units passed a special resolution declaring the Kadets “the sworn enemies and enslavers of the working people,” and demanded the expulsion from their troop ring of all those who dared to enter an agreement with the Kadets.

Kornilov, himself a Cossack, counted strongly on the help of the Cossacks, especially those of the Don, and filled out with Cossack units the division designated for his coup d’état. But the Cossacks never stirred in behalf of this “son of a peasant.” The villagers were ready to defend their land in their own territory ferociously enough, but they had no desire to get mixed up in somebody else’s quarrel. The Third Cavalry Corps also failed to justify the hopes placed in it. Although unfriendly to fraternization with the Germans, on the Petrograd front the Cossacks willingly came to meet the soldiers and sailors. It was this fraternization which broke up Kornilov’s plan without bloodshed. In this way the last prop of the Old Russia, the Cossacks, weakened and crumbled away.

During this same time and far beyond the border of Russia, on French territory, an experiment in the “resurrection” of the Russian armies was carried out on a laboratory scale – beyond the reach of the Bolsheviks and therefore the more convincing. During the summer and autumn despatches appeared in the Russian press, but remained almost unnoticed in the whirlwind of events, telling of armed revolts among the Russian troops in France. As early as January 1917 – that is, before the revolution – the soldiers of the two Russian brigades in France, to quote the officer Lissovsky, “were firmly convinced that they had all been sold to the French in exchange for ammunition.” The soldiers were not so badly mistaken, either. For their Allied masters they had not the “slightest sympathy,” and in their own officers not the slightest confidence. The news of the revolution found these exported brigades politically prepared, so to speak, yet nevertheless, it took them unawares. An explanation of the revolution was not to be expected from the officers – the officers were the more at a loss, the higher they were – but democratic patriots from among the emigrants appeared in the camps. “It was observed more than once,” writes Lissovsky, “that certain of the diplomats and officers of the guard regiments ... would obligingly draw up chairs for the former emigrants.” Elective institutions were formed among the regiments, and at the head of the committee would soon arrive a Lettish soldier. Here, too, then, they had their “foreign elements.” The first regiment, formed in Moscow and consisting almost wholly of workers, clerks and salesmen – proletarian and semi-proletarian elements in general – had first stepped on French soil a year before, and during the winter had fought well on the fields of Champagne. But “the disease of demoralization struck this same regiment first.” The second regiment, which had in its ranks a large percentage of peasants, remained longer tranquil. The second brigade, which consisted almost exclusively of Siberian peasants, seemed wholly reliable. Very soon after the February revolution the first brigade broke discipline. It did not want to fight either for Alsace or for Lorraine; it did not want to die for beautiful France. It wanted to try living in the New Russia. The brigade was withdrawn to the rear, and quartered in the center of France, in Camp La Courtine. “Amid quiet bourgeois villages,” relates Lissovsky, “about ten thousand mutinous Russian soldiers, armed, having no officers, and absolutely refusing to submit to anybody, lived in this vast camp an entirely unique and special kind of life.” Here Kornilov had an extraordinary opportunity to apply his methods for restoring the army, with the co-operation of his warm sympathizers, Poincare and Ribot. The commander-in-chief telegraphed a command that the soldiers be brought “into submission,” and sent to Salonika. But the rebels would not surrender. On the 1st of September heavy artillery was brought up, and placards posted within the camp quoting the threatening telegram of Kornilov. But just here a new complication thrust itself into the course of events. News appeared in the French papers that Kornilov himself had been declared a traitor and a counter-revolutionist. The mutinous soldiers firmly decided that there was no reason why they should die in Salonika – especially at the command of a traitor-general. These workers and peasants who had been sold for ammunition decided to stand up for themselves. They refused to hold conversations with anybody whatever from the outside. From then on not one single soldier ever left the camp.

The second Russian brigade was brought into action against the first. The artillery occupied positions on the nearby mountain slopes, the infantry, employing all the rules of engineering science, dug trenches and approaches to La Courtine. The surroundings were strongly occupied by Alpine sharpshooters, to make sure that no single Frenchman should enter the theater of war of the two Russian brigades. Thus the military authorities of France set the stage on their territory for a Russian civil war, prudently surrounding it with a hedge of bayonets. This was merely a rehearsal. Later on the French ruling classes organized a civil war on the territory of Russia herself, surrounding it with the barbed ring of the blockade.

“A regular methodical bombardment of the camp began.” Several hundred soldiers came out of the camp, agreeing to surrender. They were received, and the artillery fire immediately began again. This lasted for four days and four nights. The La Courtine men surrendered in detachments. On the 6th of September, there remained about two hundred men who had decided not to give themselves up alive. At their head stood a Ukrainian, Globa, a Baptist, a fanatic: in Russia they would have called him a Bolshevik. Under cover of artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, combining in one general roar, the place was actually stormed. In the end the rebels were subdued. The number of victims is unknown. Law and order was in any case re-established. But in just a few weeks the second brigade which had bombarded the first was seized with the same disease.

The Russian soldiers had carried this dreadful infection with them across the sea in their canvas knapsacks, in the linings of their coats, in the secret places of their hearts. This dramatic episode at La Courtine is significant; it was a kind of consciously arranged ideal experiment, almost as though under a bell-glass, for testing out those inner processes in the Russian army, the foundation for which had been laid by the whole past history of the country.

Source: Marxist Internet Archive


The February Revolution
Strikes and protests erupt on women's day in Petrograd and develop into a mass movement involving hundreds of thousands of workers; within 5 days the workers win over the army and bring down the hated and seemingly omnipotent Tsarist Monarchy.
Lenin Returns
Lenin returns to Russia and presents his ‘April Theses’ denouncing the Bourgeois Provisional Government and calling for “All Power to the Soviets!”
The June Days
Following the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the reformist leaders called a demonstration to show the strength of "democracy". 400,000 people attended, the vast majority carried banners with Bolshevik slogans.
The July Days
Spontaneous, armed demonstrations against the Provisional Government erupt in Petrograd. The workers and soldiers are suppressed by force, introducing a period of reaction and making the peaceful development of the revolution impossible.
The Kornilov Affair
Following the July days, the Bolsheviks were driven underground and the forces of reaction were emboldened. This process culminated in the reactionary forces coalescing around General Kornilov, who attempt to march on Petrograd and crush the revolutionary movement in its entirety.
The October Revolution
The Provisional Government is overthrown. State power passes to the Soviets on the morningm of 26th October, after the Bolsheviks’ Military Revolutionary Committee seize the city and the cabinet surrenders.
  • V. I. Lenin

    V. I. Lenin

    "The dominating trait of his character, the feature which constituted half his make-up, was his will..."
  • L. Trotsky

    L. Trotsky

    “Astounding speeches, fanfares of orders, the unceasing electrifier of a weakening army.”
  • G. Plekhanov

    G. Plekhanov

    "In the final analysis the brilliant aspects of Plekhanov’s character will endure forever."
  • G. O. Zinoviev

    G. O. Zinoviev

    "Zinoviev has won the reputation of being one of the most remarkable orators – a difficult feat."
  • Y. M. Sverdlov

    Y. M. Sverdlov

    “He did not die on the field of battle, but we are right to see him as a man who gave his life for the cause.”
  • V. Volodarsky

    V. Volodarsky

    “He was always to be seen in the front row, the on-the-spot leader. So, they killed him.”
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Reading Guides

  • The 1917 February Revolution

    The 1917 February Revolution

    The February Revolution saw a mass strike develop from below at a furious pace which posed the question of state power within a week of its inception. Workers in Petrograd took to the streets against intolerable bread shortages, the slaughter
  • Lenin Returns in April

    Lenin Returns in April

    This reading guide contains some of Lenin’s most important writings and speeches made in the April period, accompanied by works which provide further details of events at that stage of the Revolution.
  • The June Days 1917

    The June Days 1917

    This reading guide informs the May-June period of the Revolution with analysis, accounts of those who were involved and important speeches and writings of the time.
  • The July Days 1917

    The July Days 1917

    This selection of texts covers the background, events and consequences of the July Days. Next, we will turn our attention to one of those consequences – the Kornilov putsch in late August.
  • The Kornilov affair

    The Kornilov affair

    Kornilov’s failed coup brought the direct action of the masses into play again, and proved to them once and for all that they were the only force in society capable of transforming their own living conditions. For the first time,
  • The October Insurrection 1917

    The October Insurrection 1917

    The following series of articles provides in-depth analyses and first-hand accounts of the events immediately preceding, during and after the greatest event in human history: the October Revolution, in addition to reflections on its aftermath.
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