In Defence of October

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[Classics] History of the Russian Revolution


The Bolsheviks and the Soviets

Upon a close examination, the means and implements of the Bolshevik agitation seem not only completely out of proportion to the political influence of Bolshevism, but simply amazing in their insignificance.

Up to the July days the party had 41 publications counting weeklies and monthlies, with a total circulation, counting everything, of 320,000. After the July raids the circulation dwindled by half. At the end of August the central organ of the Party was printing 50,000 copies. In the days when the party was winning over the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, the cash in the treasury of the Central Committee amounted to only 30,000 paper rubles.

The intelligentsia hardly came into the Bolshevik party at all. A broad layer of so-called “old Bolsheviks,” from among the students who had associated themselves with the revolution of 1905, had since turned into extraordinarily successful engineers, physicians, government officials, and they now unceremoniously showed the party the hostile aspect of their backs. Even in Petrograd there was felt at every step a lack of journalists, speakers, agitators; and the provinces were wholly deprived of what few they had had. “There are no leaders; there are no politically literate people who can explain to the masses what the Bolsheviks want!” – this cry came from hundreds of remote corners, and especially from the front. In the villages there were almost no Bolshevik nuclei at all. Postal communications were in complete disorder. The local organizations, left to their own devices, would occasionally reproach the Central Committee – and not without foundation – that it was concerning itself only with Petrograd.

How was it that with this weak apparatus and this negligible circulation of the party press, the ideas and slogans of Bolshevism were able to take possession of the people? The explanation is very simple: those slogans which correspond to the keen demands of a class and an epoch create thousands of channels for themselves. A red-hot revolutionary medium is a high conductor of ideas. The Bolshevik papers were read aloud, were read all to pieces. The most important articles were learned by heart, recited, copied, and wherever possible reprinted. “Our staff printing plant,” says the soldier, Pereiko, “performed a great service for the revolution. How many individual articles from Pravda were reprinted by us, and how many small brochures, very close and comprehensible to the soldiers! And all these were swiftly distributed along the front with the help of air mails, bicycles and motorcycles ...” At the same time the bourgeois press, although’ supplied to the front free of cost in millions of copies, hardly found a reader. The heavy bales remained unopened. This boycott of the “patriotic” press at times assumed a demonstrative form. Representatives of the 18th Siberian division passed a resolution asking the bourgeois parties to stop sending literature, inasmuch as it was “fruitlessly used to boil the hot water for tea.” The Bolshevik press was very differently employed. Hence the coefficient of its useful – or if you prefer, harmful – effectiveness was incomparably higher.

The usual explanation of the success of Bolshevism reduced itself to a remark upon “the simplicity of its slogans,” which fell in with the desires of the masses. In this there is a certain element of truth. The wholeness of the Bolshevik policy was due to the fact that, in contrast to the “democratic parties,” the Bolsheviks were free from unexpressed or semi-expressed gospels reducing themselves in the last analysis to a defense of private property. However, that distinction alone does not exhaust the matter. While on the right the “democracy” was competing with the Bolsheviks, on the left too there were the anarchists, the Maximalists, the Left Social Revolutionaries, trying to crowd them out. But these groups too – none of them ever emerged from its impotent state. What distinguished Bolshevism was that it subordinated the subjective goal, the defense of the interests of the popular masses, to the laws of revolution as an objectively conditioned process. The scientific discovery of these laws, and first of all those which govern the movement of popular masses, constituted the basis of the Bolshevik strategy. The toilers are guided their struggle not only by their demands, not only by their needs, but by their life experiences. Bolshevism had absolutely no taint of any aristocratic scorn for the independent experience of the masses. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks took this for their point of departure and built upon it. That was one of their great points of superiority.

Revolutions are always verbose, and the Bolsheviks did not escape from this law. But whereas the agitation of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries was scattered, self-contradictory and oftenest of all evasive, the agitation of the Bolsheviks was distinguished by its concentrated and well thought-out character. The Compromisers talked themselves out of difficulties; the Bolsheviks went to meet them. A continual analysis of the objective situation, a testing of slogans upon facts, a serious attitude to the enemy even when he was none too serious, gave special strength and power of conviction to the Bolshevik agitation.

The party press did not exaggerate success, did not distort the correlation of forces, did not try to win by shouting. The school of Lenin was a school of revolutionary realism. The data supplied by the Bolshevik press of 1917 are proving, in the light of historic criticism and the documents of the epoch, incomparably more correct than the data supplied by all the other newspapers. This correctness was a result of the revolutionary strength of the Bolsheviks, but at the same time it reinforced their strength. The renunciation of this tradition has subsequently become one of the most malignant features of epigonism.

“We are not charlatans,” said Lenin immediately after his arrival. “We must base ourselves only upon the consciousness of the masses. Even if it is necessary to remain in a minority, be it so ... We must not be afraid to be a minority ... We will carry on the work of criticism in order to free the masses from deceit. Our line will prove right. All the oppressed will come to us. They have no other way out.” Here we have the Bolshevik policy, comprehensible from beginning to end as the direct opposite of demagoguism and adventurism.

Lenin is in hiding. He is intently watching the papers, reading as always between the lines, or catching in personal conversations – not very frequent – the echo of ideas not thought out, intentions not expressed. The masses are on the ebb. Martov, while defending the Bolsheviks from slander, is at the same time indulging in mournful irony at the expense of a party which has been so “crafty” as to defeat itself. Lenin guesses – and direct rumors of this will soon reach him – that even some of the Bolsheviks, too, are not free from a note of repentance, that the impressionable Lunacharsky is not alone. Lenin writes about the whimpering of the petty bourgeois, and about the “renegadism” of those Bolsheviks who show a disposition to respond to this whimpering. The Bolsheviks in the districts and in the provinces catch up with approval these austere words. They are again and more solidly convinced: “The old man is not losing his head. His will is firm. He will not surrender to any accidental mood.

A member of the central committee of the Bolsheviks – perhaps Sverdlov – writes to a province: “We are temporarily without newspapers ... The organization is not broken up ... The congress is not postponed.” Lenin, so far as his enforced isolation permits, attentively follows the preparation for the party congress, and designates its fundamental problem: to plan the further offensive. The congress was described in advance as a joint congress, since it was to bring about the inclusion in the Bolshevik party of certain autonomous revolutionary groups. Chief among these was the Petrograd inter-district organization to which belonged Trotsky, Joffe, Uritsky, Riazanov, Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, Manuilsky, Karakhan, Urenev, and several other revolutionists known in the past, or still only coming to be known.

On July 2, on the very eve of the demonstration, a conference had been held of the Mezhrayontsi [1] representing about 4,000 workers. “The majority,” writes Sukhanov, who was present in the gallery, “were workers and soldiers unknown to me ... A feverish work had been carried on and its success was palpable to us all. There was only one difficulty: What is the difference between you and the Bolsheviks, and why are you not with them?” In order to hasten that fusion which certain individual leaders of the organization were trying to postpone, Trotsky published in Pravda the following statement: “There are in my opinion at the present time no differences either in principle or tactics between the inter-district and the Bolshevik organizations. Accordingly there are no motives which justify the separate existence of these organizations.”

The joint congress opened on July 26 – in essence the 6th congress of the Bolshevik party – and it conducted its meetings semi-legally, concealing itself alternately in two different workers’ districts. There were 175 delegates, 157 with a vote, representing 112 organizations, comprising 176,750 members. In Petrograd there were 41,000 members: 36,000 in the Bolshevik organization, 4,000 Mezhrayontsi, and about 1,000 in the Military Organization. In the central industrial regions, of which Moscow is the focus, the party had 42,000 members; in the Urals 25,000; in the Donetz Basin about 15,000. In the Caucasus, big Bolshevik organizations were to be found in Baku, Grozny, and Tiflis. The first two were almost wholly composed of workers; in Tiflis the soldiers predominated.

The personnel of the congress embodied the pre-revolutionary past of the party. Out of 171 delegates who filled out a questionnaire, 110 had spent 245 years in prison, 10 delegates had spent 41 years at hard labor, 24 had spent 73 years in penal settlements, 55 delegates had been in exile 127 years; 27 had been abroad for 89 years; 150 had been arrested 549 times.

“At that congress,” as Piatnitsky, one of the present secretaries of the Communist International, later remembered, “neither Lenin, nor Trotsky, nor Zinoviev, nor Kamenev was present ... Although the question of the party program was withdrawn from the agenda, nevertheless the congress went off well and in a businesslike way without the leaders of the party ...” At the basis of the work lay the theses of Lenin. Bukharin and Stalin made the principal reports. The report of Stalin is a good measure of the distance travelled by the speaker himself, along with all the cadres of the party, in the four months since Lenin’s arrival. With theoretical diffidence, but political decisiveness, Stalin tries to name over those features which define “the deep character of a socialist workers’ revolution.” The unanimity of this conference in comparison with the April one is noticeable at once.

On the subject of elections to the Central Committee, the report of the congress reads: “The names of the four members of the Central Committee receiving the most votes are read aloud: Lenin – 133 votes out of 134. Zinoviev 132, Kamenev 131, and Trotsky 131. Besides these four, the following members were elected to the Central Committee: Nogin, Kollantai, Stalin, Sverdlov, Rykov, Bukharin, Artem, Joffe, Uritsky, Miliutin, Lomov.” The membership of this Central Committee should be well noted. Under its leadership the October Revolution is to be achieved.

Martov greeted the congress with a letter in which he again expressed his deep indignation against the campaign of slander, but on fundamental problems remained standing upon the threshold of action. “We must not substitute for the conquest of power by a majority of the revolutionary democracy, the conquest of power in a struggle with that majority and against it ...” By “a majority of the revolutionary democracy” Martov meant, as before, the official soviet representation which had no longer any ground under its feet. “Martov is bound up with the social patriots, not only by an empty factional tradition,” wrote Trotsky at that time, “but by a profoundly opportunistic attitude to the social revolution as to a far-off goal which cannot determine our approach to the problems of today. That of itself separates him from us.”

Only a small number of Left Mensheviks, headed by Larin, decisively came over to the Bolsheviks during this period. Urenev, future soviet diplomat, making the report to the conference on the subject of fusion with these Internationalists, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to fuse with “a minority of the minority of the Mensheviks ...” A copious flow of former Mensheviks into the party began only after the October revolution. Adhering not to the proletarian insurrection, but to the power which issued from it, the Mensheviks here revealed the fundamental quality of opportunism – submission to the existing powers. Lenin, always extremely sensitive to the question of the ingredients of the party, soon came forward with the demand that 99 per cent of the Mensheviks who had joined after the October revolution be expelled. He was far from attaining that goal. Subsequently the doors were opened wide to Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, and former Compromisers have become one of the bulwarks of the Stalinist party régime. But all that has to do with later times.

Sverdlov, the practical organizer of the congress, reported: “Trotsky had already before the congress joined the editorial staff of our paper, but his imprisonment prevented his actual participation.” It was only at this July congress that Trotsky formally joined the Bolshevik party. The balance was here struck to years of disagreement and factional struggle. Trotsky came to Lenin as to a teacher whose power and significance he understood later than many others, but perhaps more fully than they. Raskolnikov, who was in close contact with Trotsky from the time of his arrival from Canada, and afterward passed several weeks side by side with him in prison, has written in his memoirs: “Trotsky’s attitude to Vladimir Ilych (Lenin) was one of enormous esteem. He placed him higher than any contemporary he had met with, either in Russia or abroad. In the tone in which Trotsky spoke of Lenin you felt the devotion of a disciple. In those times Lenin had behind him thirty years’ service to the proletariat, and Trotsky twenty. The echoes of their disagreements during the pre-war period were completely gone. No difference existed between the tactical line of Lenin and Trotsky. Their rapprochement, already noticeable during the war, was completely and unquestionably determined, from the moment of the return of Lyev Davidovich (Trotsky) to Russia. After his very first speeches all of us old Leninists felt that he was ours.” To this we may add that the mere number of votes cast for Trotsky in electing him to the Central Committee proves that even at the very moment of his entrance into the party, nobody in Bolshevik circles looked upon him as an outsider.

Invisibly present at the congress, Lenin introduced into its work a spirit of responsibility and audacity. The founder and teacher of this party could not endure slovenliness, either in theory or in practical politics. He knew that an incorrect economic formula, like an inattentive political observation, takes cruel vengeance in the hour of action. In defending his fastidiously attentive attitude to every party text, even the secondary ones, Lenin said more than once: “This is not a trivial detail. We must have accuracy. Our agitators will learn this and not go astray ...” “We have a good party,” he would add, having in view just this serious, meticulous attitude of the rank-and-file agitator upon the question what to say and how to say it.

The audacity of the Bolshevik slogans more than once produced a fantastic impression. Lenin’s April theses were greeted in this way. In reality the fantastic thing in a revolutionary epoch is near-sightedness. Realism at such times is unthinkable without a policy of long aim. It is not enough to say that anything fantastic was wholly alien to Bolshevism. The fact is that the party of Lenin was the sole party of political realism in the revolution.

In June and early July the worker Bolsheviks complained more than once that they were often compelled to play the rôle of fire hose in relation to the masses – and this, too, not always successfully. July brought, along with its defeat, a lesson dearly paid for. The masses became far more attentive to the warnings of the party, more understanding of its tactical calculations. The July congress of the party ratified those warnings. “The proletariat must not yield to the provocations of the bourgeoisie, who at the present time would be only too glad to incite us to a premature battle.” The whole of August, and especially the latter half, was marked by continual warnings from the party to the workers and soldiers: Do not go into the street. The Bolshevik leaders themselves often joked about the similarity of their warnings to the political leitmotif of the German social democracy, which has invariably restrained the masses from every serious struggle by referring to the danger of provocateurs and the necessity of accumulating strength. In reality the similarity was imaginary. The Bolsheviks well understood that strength is accumulated in struggle and not in passive evasion of it. The study of reality was for Lenin only a theoretical reconnoitre in the interests of action. In appraising a situation he always conceived his party in its very center as an active force. He viewed with especial hostility – or more accurately, disgust – that Austro-Marxism of Otto Bauer, Hilferding and others for whom theoretical analysis consists merely of the learned commentaries of passivity. Prudence is a brake and not a motive force. Nobody ever made a journey on brakes, and nobody every created anything out of prudence. But the Bolsheviks knew well, just the same, that a struggle demands a calculation of forces – that one must be prudent to win the right to be bold.

The resolution of the 6th Congress, in giving its warning against premature conflicts, at the same time pointed out that the battle must be joined at that moment “when the all-national crisis and the deep movement of the masses have created a favorable condition for the coming over of the city and country poor to the side of the workers.” At the tempo of the revolution, this was a question not of decades, nor of years, but of a few months.

In placing upon the order of the day the task of explaining to the masses the necessity of getting ready for an armed insurrection, the congress decided at the same time to withdraw the central slogan of the preceding period: transfer of power to the soviets. The one thing was bound up with the other. Lenin had opened the way to this change of slogan with his articles, letters and personal conversations.

The transfer of power to the soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the good will of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses. The dictatorship of the workers and soldiers had been a fact ever since the 27th of February. But the workers and soldiers were not to the point necessary aware of that fact. They had confided the power to the Compromisers, who in their turn had passed it over to the bourgeoisie. The calculations of the Bolsheviks on a peaceful development of the revolution rested, not on the hope that the bourgeoisie would voluntarily turn over the power to the workers and soldiers, but that the workers and soldiers would in good season prevent the Compromisers from surrendering the power to the bourgeoisie.

The concentration of the power in the soviets under a régime of soviet democracy, would have opened before the Bolsheviks a complete opportunity to become a majority in the soviet, and consequently to create a government on the basis of their program. For this end an armed insurrection would have been unnecessary. The interchange of power between parties could have been accomplished peacefully. All the efforts of the party from April to July had been directed towards making possible a peaceful development of the revolution through the soviet. “Patiently explain” – that had been the key to the Bolshevik policy.

The July Days had radically changed the situation. From the soviets the power had gone over into the hands of a military clique in close contact with the Kadets and the embassies, a clique which only tolerated Kerensky temporarily in the character of a democratic trademark. If the Executive Committee should now have decided to introduce a resolution transferring the power into its own hands, the result would have been wholly different from three days before. A Cossack regiment with men from the military schools would probably have entered the Tauride Palace and attempted to arrest the “usurpers.” The slogan “Power to the Soviets” from now on meant armed insurrection against the government and those military cliques which stood behind it. But to raise an insurrection in the cause of “Power to the Soviets” when the soviets did not want the power, was obvious nonsense.

On the other hand, it had become doubtful from this point on – some even considered it improbable – whether the Bolsheviks could win a majority in those powerless soviets by means of peaceful elections. Having associated themselves with the July raids upon workers and peasants, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries would of course continue to furnish a screen for acts of violence against the Bolsheviks. Remaining compromisist, the soviets would turn into a spineless opposition under a counterrevolutionary government, and then soon come to an end altogether.

Under these circumstances there could no longer be any talk of a peaceful transfer of power to the proletariat. For the Bolshevik party this meant: We must prepare for an armed insurrection. Under what slogan? Under the candid slogan of the conquest of power by the proletariat and the peasant poor. We must present the revolutionary task in its naked form. We must liberate the class essence of the thing from its equivocal soviet form. This was not a renunciation of the soviets as such. After winning the power, the proletariat would have to organize the state upon the soviet type. But those would be other soviets, fulfilling a historic work directly opposite to the defensive function of the compromisist soviets.

“The slogan of the transfer of power to the soviets,” wrote Lenin, under the first volleys of slander and attack, “would now sound like Quixotism or like a joke. That slogan, taken objectively, would be a deceiving of the people – a suggesting to them of the illusion that it would be now enough for the soviets to desire to take the power or pass a resolution to that effect, in order to receive the power. As though there were in the Soviet a party which had not disgraced itself by helping the hangman! As though we could make what has been as though it had not been.”

Renounce the demand for a transfer of power to the soviets? At the first blush this idea shocked the party – or rather it shocked the agitatorial cadres, who for the preceding three months had so much lived with this popular slogan, that they had almost come to identify it with the whole content of the revolution. A discussion began in the party circles. Many eminent party workers, such as Manuilsky, Urenev and others, argued that withdrawing the slogan “Power to the Soviets” would create a danger of isolating the proletariat from the peasantry. This argument substituted institutions for classes. The fetishism of organizational forms – strange as it may seem at a first glance – is an especially common disease among revolutionary circles. “Insofar as we remain within the membership of these soviets,” wrote Trotsky, “... we will try to bring it about that the soviets, reflecting the past days of the revolution, may be able to raise themselves to the height of the future task. But no matter how important is the question of the rôle and fate of the soviets, it is for us wholly subordinate to the question of the struggle of the proletariat and the semi-proletarian masses of the city, the army and the country, for political power, for a revolutionary dictatorship.”

The question, what mass organizations were to serve the party for leadership in the insurrection, did not permit an a priori, much less a categorical, answer. The instruments of the insurrection might have been the factory committees and trade unions, already under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, and at the same time in individual cases certain soviets that had broken free from the yoke of the Compromisers. Lenin, for example, said to Ordzhonikidze: “We must swing over the center of gravity to the factory and shop committees. The factory and shop committees must become the organs of insurrection.”

After the masses had come into conflict with the soviets in July, finding them at first passive opponents and then active enemies, this change of slogan found in their consciousness a prepared soil. Just here lay the everlasting preoccupation of Lenin: to express with the utmost simplicity that which on the one hand flowed from the objective conditions, and on the other formulated the subjective experience of the masses. It is not to Tseretelli’s soviets that we must now offer the power – so the advanced workers and soldiers felt. We must now take it in our own hands.

The Moscow strike demonstration against the State Conference not only came about against the will of the soviets, but did not put forward the demand for a soviet power. The masses had succeeded in learning the lesson offered by events and interpreted by Lenin. At the same time the Moscow Bolsheviks did not for a moment hesitate to occupy fighting positions as soon as a danger arose that the counter-revolution would attempt to strangle the compromisist soviets. The Bolshevik policy always united revolutionary implacableness with the greatest flexibility, and in just this combination lay the whole secret of its power.

Events in the theater of the war soon subjected the policy of the party, so far as concerns its internationalism, to a very severe test. After the fall of Riga the question of the fate of Petrograd touched the workers and soldiers to the quick. At a meeting of the factory and shop committees in Smolny, the Menshevik Mazurenko, an officer who had recently taken the lead in disarming the Petrograd workers, made a speech about the danger threatening Petrograd, and raised practical questions concerning defense. “What are you trying to say to us,” cried one of the Bolshevik orators. “Our leaders are in prison and you ask us to take up questions connected with the defense of the capital?” As industrial workers, as citizens of a bourgeois republic, the proletarians of the Vyborg district had no intention of sabotaging the defense of the revolutionary capital, but as Bolsheviks, as members of the party, they did not for a minute intend to share with the ruling groups the responsibility before the Russian people and the people of other countries for the war. Fearing that defensive moods would turn into a defensist policy, Lenin wrote: “We will become defensists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat ... Neither the capture of Riga nor the capture of Petersburg will make us defensists. Up to that moment we are for the proletarian revolution. We are against the war. We are not defensists.” “The fall of Riga,” wrote Trotsky from prison, “is a cruel blow. The fall of Petersburg would be a misfortune. But the fall of the international policy of the Russian proletariat would be ruinous.”

Was this the doctrinairism of fanatics? During the very days while Bolshevik sharpshooters and sailors were dying under the walls of Riga, the government was withdrawing troops for the purpose of raiding the Bolsheviks, and the supreme commander-in-chief was making ready to wage war on the government. For this policy, whether at the front or rear, whether for defense or offense, the Bolsheviks could not and would not bear a shadow of responsibility. Had they behaved otherwise, they would not have been Bolsheviks.

Kerensky and Kornilov were two variants of one and the same danger. But those two variants, the one chronic and the other acute, came into conflict with each other towards the end of August. It was necessary to ward off the acute danger first, in order afterwards to settle with the chronic one. The Bolsheviks not only entered the committee of defense, although condemned there to the position of a small minority, but they announced that in the struggle with Kornilov they were prepared to form a “military-technical union even with the directory. On this theme Sukhanov writes: “The Bolsheviks revealed extraordinary tact and political wisdom. ... To be sure, in entering a compromise not proper to their natures, they were pursuing certain aims of their own not foreseen by their allies. But so much the greater was their wisdom in this matter.” There was nothing whatever “not proper” to the nature of Bolshevism in this policy: on the contrary, nothing could correspond better to the whole character of the party. The Bolsheviks were revolutionists of the deed and not the gesture, of the essence and not the form. Their policy was determined by the real grouping of forces, and not by sympathies and antipathies. When taunted by the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, Lenin wrote: “It would be the profoundest mistake to imagine that the revolutionary proletariat is capable, so to speak, out of ’vengeance’ upon the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks for the support they have given to anti-Bolshevik raids, to shootings at the front, and the disarming of workers, of refusing to ’support’ them against the counterrevolution.”

Support them technically, but not politically. Lenin gave a decisive warning against political support in one of his letters to the Central Committee: “We ought not even now to support the government of Kerensky. That would be unprincipled. You ask: But mustn’t we fight Kornilov? Of course, yes. But that is not the same thing. There is a limit here. Some of the Bolsheviks are crossing it, slipping into ‘compromisism,’ getting carried away by the flood of events.”

Lenin knew how to catch the finest shadings of a political mood from afar. On the 29th of August at a session of the Kiev city duma, one of the local Bolshevik leaders, G. Piatakov, declared: “In this dangerous moment we must forget all the old accounts ... and unite with all revolutionary parties which stand for a decisive struggle against counter-revolution. I summon you to unity, etc.” This was that false political tone against which Lenin gave his warning. “To forget the old accounts” would have meant to open new credits for the candidates in bankruptcy. “We will fight, we are fighting against Kornilov,” wrote Lenin, “but we are not supporting Kerensky, but exposing his weakness. This is a different thing ... We must struggle ruthlessly against phrases ... about supporting the Provisional Government, etc., etc., precisely as mere phrases.” The workers had no illusions about the nature of their bloc with the Winter Palace. “In fighting Kornilov the proletariat will fight not for the dictatorship of Kerensky, but for all the conquests of the revolution.” Thus spoke factory after factory – in Petrograd, in Moscow, in the provinces. Without making the slightest political concession to the Compromisers, without confusing either organizations or banners, the Bolsheviks were ready as always to harmonize their action with that of opponent and enemy, if this made it possible to deal a blow at another enemy more dangerous at the given moment.

In the struggle against Kornilov, the Bolsheviks were pursuing their own “special aims.” Sukhanov hints that they had already at that time set themselves the task of converting the committee of defense into an instrument of proletarian revolution. It is indubitable that the revolutionary committees of the Kornilov days became to a certain extent the prototype of those organs which subsequently led the proletarian insurrection. But Sukhanov nevertheless attributes too much foresight to the Bolsheviks, when he thinks they saw this organizational factor in advance. The “special aims” of the Bolsheviks were to shatter the counter-revolution, tear away the Compromisers from the Kadets if possible, unite the largest masses possible under their own leadership, arm as many revolutionary workers as they could. Of these aims the Bolsheviks made no secret. The persecuted party saved the government which had repressed and slandered it, but it saved the government from military destruction only in order the more surely to destroy it politically.

The last days of August brought another abrupt shift in the correlation of forces, but this time from right to left. The masses once called into the fight had no difficulty in re-establishing the soviets in the position which they had occupied before the July crisis. Henceforth the fate of the soviets was in their own hands. The power could be seized by them without a struggle. For this the Compromisers had only to ratify the situation which had already been created in reality. The whole question was, did they want to do this? The Compromisers now declared with heat that a coalition with the Kadets was no longer thinkable. If that was so, then it had been unthinkable at any time. The renunciation of a coalition, however, could mean nothing but the transfer of power to the Compromisers.

Lenin immediately seized the essence of the new situation, and made the necessary inferences from it. On the 3rd of September he wrote an admirable article, On Compromises. The rôle of the soviets has again changed, he declared: At the beginning of July they were organs of struggle against the proletariat. At the end of August they have become organs of struggle against the bourgeoisie. The soviets have again got the troops in their control. History again half-opens the possibility for a peaceful development of the revolution. That is an extraordinarily rare and precious possibility. We must make an attempt to achieve it. In passing Lenin made fun of those phrasemakers who reject all compromises whatever: the problem is “throughout all compromises insofar as they are inevitable” to carry out your own aims and fulfil your own tasks. “The compromise upon our part,” he said, “will be a return to our pre-July demand: All power to the soviets, a government of Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks responsible to the soviets. Now and now only, perhaps only in the course of a few days, or one or two weeks, such a government might be created and fortified in a wholly peaceful manner.” That short date was meant to characterize the acuteness of the whole situation: the Compromisers had only days in which to make their choice between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The Compromisers recoiled hastily from Lenin’s proposal as from a wily trap. In reality there was not the slightest hint of wiliness in Lenin’s proposal. Confident that his party was destined to stand at the head of the people, Lenin made a frank attempt to soften the struggle, weakening the resistance of the enemy against the inevitable.

Lenin’s bold changes of policy, always resulting from changes in the situation itself, and invariably preserving the unity of his strategic design, constitute an invaluable textbook of revolutionary strategy. This proposal of compromise was significant first of all as an object lesson to the Bolshevik party itself. It demonstrated that in spite of their experience with Kornilov, there was no longer a possibility of the Compromisers’ turning down the road of revolution. The Bolshevik party now conclusively felt itself to be the sole party of revolution.

The Compromisers refused to play the part of a transmitting mechanism carrying the power from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat, as they had in March carried the power from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. By virtue of this fact, the slogan “Power to the Soviets” was again suspended. However, not for long: In the next few days the Bolsheviks got a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and afterward in a number of others. The phrase “Power to the soviets” was not, therefore, again removed from the order of the day, but received a new meaning: All power to the Bolshevik soviets. In this form the slogan had decisively ceased to be a slogan of peaceful development. The party was launched on the road of armed insurrection through the soviets and in the name of the soviets.

In order to understand the further course of events, it is necessary to raise the question: In what manner did the compromisist soviets regain at the beginning of September the power which they had squandered in July? Throughout the resolutions of the Sixth Congress of the Bolshevik party there runs the assertion that, as a result of the July events, the dual power has been liquidated and replaced by a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The most recent soviet historians have copied this idea from book to book, without even trying to revalue it in the light of the events which followed. Moreover it has never occurred to them to ask: If in July the power went over wholly into the hands of a military clique, why was this same military clique compelled in August to resort to an insurrection? Those who have power do not choose the risky path of conspiracy, only those who want to get it.

The formula of the Sixth Congress was, to say the least, inaccurate. Once we designate as a dual power that régime in which an essentially fictitious power lies in the hands of the official government and the real power in the hands of the Soviet, then there is no reason to assert that the dual power is liquidated from the moment when a part of the real power passes over from the Soviet to the bourgeoisie. From the point of view of the military problems of the moment it was permissible, and indeed necessary, to overestimate the concentration of power in the hands of the counter-revolution. Politics is not a mathematical science. Practically, it would have been incomparably more dangerous to minimize the significance of the change, than to magnify it. But a historical analysis has no need of those exaggerations proper to agitation.

Simplifying the thought of Lenin, Stalin said at the congress: “The situation is clear. Nobody talks now of the dual power. If the soviets formerly represented a real power, they are now merely instruments of the union of the masses, possessing no power.” Some of the delegates replied to the effect that the reaction had triumphed in July, but that the counter-revolution was not victorious. Stalin answered with a surprising aphorism: “During a revolution there is no reaction.” As a matter of fact a revolution triumphs only through a series of intermittent reactions. It always makes a step back for every two steps forward. Reaction is to counter-revolution as reform is to revolution. We may call victories of the reaction those changes in the régime which bring it in the direction of the demands of the counter-revolutionary class, without, however, altering the possessor of power; but a victory of the counter-revolution is unthinkable without the transfer of power to a different class. This decisive transfer of power did not occur in July.

“If the July insurrection was a semi-insurrection, then to a certain degree the victory of the counter-revolution was a semi-victory.” Thus wrote Bukharin a few months ago – correctly enough, but without drawing the necessary inferences from his words. A semi-victory could not give the power to the bourgeoisie. The dual power was reconstructed, transformed, but it did not disappear. In the factories it was impossible as before to do anything against the will of the workers; the peasants retained enough power to prevent the landlord from enjoying his property rights; the commanders felt no confidence before the soldiers. But what is the power if it is not the material possibility to dispose of property rights and the military force? On August 13 Trotsky wrote in regard to the shifts which had occurred: “It was not merely that alongside the government stood the soviets, fulfilling a whole series of governmental functions ... The essence of the thing was that behind the soviets and behind the government stood two different régimes relying upon different classes ... The régime of the capitalist republic imposed from above, and the régime of the workers’ democracy taking form below, paralyzed each other.”

It is absolutely indubitable that the Executive Committee had lost the lion’s share of its importance. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the bourgeoisie had received all that the compromise leaders had lost. These leaders had lost not only to the right, but also to the left – not only to the benefit of the military cliques, but also to the benefit of the factory and regimental committees. The power was decentralized, scattered – in part concealed underground together with that weapon which the worker hid away after the July defeat. The dual power had ceased to be “peaceful,” contractual, regulated. It had become more concealed, more decentralized, more antithetic and explosive. At the end of August this concealed dual power again became active. We shall see what significance this fact acquired in October.


1. The above-mentioned inter-district organization – Trans.

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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