Russian Revoluton - From July to September: Revolution and Counter-revolution

The July days in Russia in 1917 were crucial. Without the Bolshevik Party the outcome could have been a devastating defeat. The reaction could have gained more ground. Thanks to the Bolsheviks the events after the July days illustrated the weakness of the reaction and the role of the reformists and prepared the ground for the events up to October

On June the 29th Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, issued a proclamation to the army and navy to begin a new offensive. The Bolsheviks had explained to the Congress of the Soviets, in a declaration written by Trotsky, as early as the 4th June that "the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army". As Trotsky explains in "My life" no amount of speechifying could solve the problems faced by the soldiers.

When the inevitable defeat came to pass, the Bolsheviks were blamed and ruthlessly hounded. But at the same time the masses' confidence in the provisional Government was fatally undermined.

At this stage the political consciousness of the soldiers and workers in Petrograd was considerably more advanced than in the rest of Russia, a bit too far ahead even. Lenin and Trotsky were acutely aware of this and were seeking to develop the strength of the radical tendencies among the workers, soldiers and sailors, while calling for "All Power to the Soviets," within which this radicalisation would be expressed.

On June 21st a strike had broken out amongst the skilled workers at the giant Putilov factory. This arose from the struggle for wages against a background of shortages and inflation. Against the general political background, a small-scale economic struggle was unlikely to succeed and the leaders of Bolsheviks and the factory committees advised restraint. But within a few days it was clear that there was a generalised ferment across the city. The anger was directed towards the government. As a report from the trade union of the Locomotive Brigade explained to the Government, "For the last time we announce: patience has its limit; we simply cannot live in such conditions..."

Vyborg district

At the same time reports reached the capital of whole regiments being disbanded for disobedience. There was ferment among the soldiers in the capital. The regiments in the Vyborg district were continually under the influence of the working class, especially the women. As Lenin's wife Krupskaya points out "The first to carry out Bolshevik propaganda among the soldiers were the sellers of sunflower seeds, kvas (a Russian soft drink), etc. many were soldier's wives". Trotsky called this process being "continually washed by the hot springs of the proletarian suburb."

The pressure among the soldiers was greater, their problems more immediate and their understanding of the political situation less developed. Also, as Trotsky explains in the "History of the Russian Revolution", they tended to overestimate the independent power of the rifle.

Meeting after meeting of the regiments called for final action against the government, delegations came from the factories urging the soldiers onto the streets and the Machine Gun Regiment, who faced the threat of sending 500 machine gun crews to the front, sent delegates to the other regiments calling for them to rise against the continuation of the war.

Under these conditions the Bolshevik Central Committee were more and more frequently forced to send delegates to the workers and soldiers calling for restraint, for fear of a premature rising which could be defeated at a huge cost. Sections of the army and the workers began to develop new informal structures, underneath the soviets, demonstrating their impatience, but also representing a warning to the Bolsheviks that there were limits to their political authority even among the most advanced layers.
The Vyborg Bolsheviks complained that they had to "play the role of a fire hose". Eventually the Bolsheviks couldn't hold back the tide of anger and on July 3rd thousands of workers, soldiers and sailors flooded into the streets, under arms, sections of the workers with civilian cars bristling with machine guns and rifles, courtesy of the soldiers.

By seven o'clock the industrial life of the capital was at a complete standstill. Factory after factory came out, lined up and armed its detachment of the Red Guard. "Amid an innumerable mass of workers," relates the Vyborg worker, Metelev, "hundreds of young Red Guards were working away loading their rifles. Others were piling cartridges into the cartridge-chambers, tightening up their belts, tying on their knapsacks or cartridge boxes, adjusting their bayonets. And the workers without arms were helping the Red Guards get ready..." Sampsonevsky Prospect, the chief artery of the Vyborg Side, was packed full of people. To the right and left of it stood solid columns of workers. In the middle of the Prospect marched the Machine Gun regiment, the spinal column of the procession. At the head of each company went an automobile truck with its Maxims. After the Machine Gun regiment came the workers. Covering the manifestation as a rear guard, came detachments of the Moscow regiment. Over every detachment streamed a banner: "All Power to the Soviets!"(Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 2, Chapter 1)

The movement was spontaneous, driven by the conditions that the soldiers and workers faced, but with no clear aims or strategy. Taking the mood of the class into account, the Bolshevik Central Committee, the Petrograd Committee of the Party and the Bolshevik dominated Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet eventually agreed to take part in the demonstration, to "give it an organised expression". They aimed effectively to prevent the movement from being smashed as it inevitably ebbed, given its lack of a clear focus. At the same time it was necessary to take the lead in a situation, shoulder to shoulder with the workers. To stand aside would have destroyed the political authority of the Bolsheviks among the most advanced layers.

Movement from Below

The demonstration thronged around the Tauride Palace, where the Central Executive of the Soviet was based. Why? The workers and troops were tired of the vacillation of the leaders of the reformist parties, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. Like the movement in February that overthrew the Tsar, the movement came from below, arising out of the impasse that Provisional Government and the reformist leaders had arrived at. The reformist leaders were aghast, and yet the Bolsheviks did their best to restrain the masses. As one incident reveals graphically.

In front of the palace, a suspicious-booking group of men who had kept aloof from the crowd seized the minister of agriculture, Chernov, and put him in an automobile. The crowd watched indifferently; at any rate, their sympathy was not with him. The news of Chernov's seizure and of the danger that threatened him reached the palace. The Populists (SRS) decided to use machine-gun armoured cars to rescue their leader. The decline of their popularity was making them nervous; they wanted to show a firm hand. I decided to try to go with Chernov in the automobile away from the crowd, in order that I might release him afterward. But a Bolshevik, Raskolnikov, a lieutenant in the Baltic navy, who had brought the Kronstadt sailors to the demonstration, excitedly insisted on releasing Chernov at once, to prevent people from saying that he had been arrested by the Kronstadt men. I decided to try to carry out Raskolnikov's wish. I will let him speak for himself.

"It is difficult to say how long the turbulence of the masses would have continued," the impulsive lieutenant says in his memoirs, "but for the intervention of Comrade Trotsky. He jumped on the front of the automobile, and with an energetic wave of his hand, like a man who was tired of waiting, gave the signal for silence. Instantly, everything calmed down, and there was dead quiet. In a loud, clear and ringing voice, Lev Davydovich made a short speech, ending with ‘those in favour of violence to Chernov raise their hands!' Nobody even opened his mouth," continues Raskolnikov; "no one uttered a word of protest. ‘Citizen Chernov, you are free,' Trotsky said, as he turned around solemnly to the minister of agriculture and with a wave of his hand, invited him to leave the automobile. Chernov was half-dead and half-alive. I helped him to get out of the automobile, and with an exhausted, expressionless look and a hesitating, unsteady walk, he went up the steps and disappeared into the vestibule of the palace. Satisfied with his victory, Lev Davydovich walked away with him."

"If one discounts the unnecessarily pathetic tone, the scene is described correctly. It did not keep the hostile press from asserting that I had Chernov seized to have him lynched. Chernov shyly kept silent; how could a "People's" minister confess his indebtedness not to his own popularity, but to the intervention of a Bolshevik for the safety of his head?" (Trotsky, My Life, Chapter 26.)

At 7pm a group of armed and angry Putilov workers burst in on the terrified leaders of the soviet. A worker jumped on the platform and shouted at the deputies:
"Comrades! How long must we workers put up with treachery? You're all here debating and making deals with the bourgeoisie and the landlords... You're busy betraying the working class. Well, just understand that the working class won't put up with it! There are 30,000 of us all told here from Putilov. We're going to have our way. All power to the Soviets! We have a firm grip on our rifles! Your Kerenskys and Tseretelis are not going to fool us!" (from The Essential Trotsky)
Compelled to negotiate, the Soviet leaders bought time for Kerensky to identify loyal troops. But as soon as the troops appeared the reformist leaders dropped their democratic face. The Bolsheviks were declared to be a "counter-revolutionary Party" that had sought armed rebellion. The Cossacks and police fired on demonstrators, killing hundreds and causing panic to ensue.

The middle class reaction showed its face as the rebel units were disarmed. Workers were beaten and murdered by respectably dressed hooligans. Pravda, the Bolshevik paper, was suppressed, the presses wrecked and the rebel units were marched up the line as canon fodder.

The events of the first week of July revealed the weakness of the reformist leaders in Petrograd, but it also indicated just how far Petrograd was ahead of the provinces. The reformist leaders still had a large support in the country as a whole, exactly as the Bolshevik leaders had perceived. It also revealed the differing mood among layers of the soldiers in Petrograd. Many units had stood to one side of the movement, but significantly none had come to the defence of Kerensky or the reformist Soviet leaders.


The reaction developed apace, the Cadet ministers walked out of the Coalition government and the Bourgeois called on the reformist ministers to break their links with the Soviet. The right wing papers bayed for Bolshevik blood, promoted anti-Semitic propaganda, and denounced Lenin as a German spy. Even the Menshevik and SR leaders joined in, calling for Lenin to give himself up. Even though they knew very well that the accusations against him were false.

Lenin went into hiding after having been persuaded by the other Bolshevik leaders not to give himself up, which would have been suicide. Even then he agreed that he would give himself up if the order was signed by the Central Executive of the Soviets. Needless to say that was a step too far even for the reformists.

The pendulum hadn't swung far enough to the right for the bourgeoisie. At a meeting of the provisional committee of the Duma the reaction ran wild; Maslenikov called for an end to Dual Power, to the role of the soviets and even: "if a thousand, two thousand, perhaps five thousand scoundrels at the front and several dozen in the rear had been done away with, we would not have suffered such an unprecedented disgrace". (Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd).

In attempting to restore order, the reaction called insistently for the restoration of the death penalty. They did this to restore order in society, but fundamentally to restore order within the armed forces, those "armed bodies of men" on which the government and the whole state apparatus ultimately rested. Only on this basis could the reaction destroy the dual power and settle affairs with the working class.

Every step that the movement took backwards was mirrored by a step forward on behalf of the reaction. As the reaction grew more vocal the workers in Petrograd felt more isolated and weak.

Lenin's perspective

With arrest warrants out for Lenin, Kamenev and Zinoviev and the movement thrown back Lenin initially considered that the reaction had triumphed all along the line. He even considered at one stage that the Bolsheviks should go underground "for a long time". Trotsky, who was in the process of trying to bring his organisation, the Mezhrayontsi (Inter District Organisation) into the Bolsheviks, made a very public written display of solidarity with the Bolsheviks and was promptly arrested.

Several weeks passed before the situation changed. Lenin felt that the opportunity for a peaceful transformation of society had passed and that the Bolsheviks needed to prepare for the likelihood of civil war. He considered for a while that the Soviets had lost their value as organs of struggle, since the leadership had passed over to the counter-revolution. He even argued for the demand of "All power to the Soviets" should be dropped in favour of the slogan "All power to the factory committees," and that the party should prepare for insurrection on this basis.

Even in this situation Lenin was looking forward and preparing an insurrection, based on the understanding that there was no basis for the reaction to consolidate power in the conditions that existed. But the reaction after the July days had dramatically affected the balance of forces within the working class. The reformist leaders sat very uneasily on top of the soviets while at the same time actively supporting the counter-revolution and preparing the conditions for civil war.

The Bolsheviks began to recover. The counter-revolution proved much weaker than Lenin had originally thought. Kerensky's policies were just as unpopular and particularly at the front, where the soldiers just wanted to come home. The attempt to reintroduce the tsarist discipline into the army rebounded on the officers, who had been forced to keep quiet for months after February.

The Menshevik and SR leaders began to lose their hold on sections of the workers and the left tendencies, the Menshevik Internationalists, the Mezhrayontsi and the Bolsheviks, began to make up ground in the Soviets. After all, where else could the workers go other than their own mass organisations?

As the Bolsheviks regrouped it became clear that the repression hadn't destroyed the party. On the contrary it began to grow once more. At the Sixth Congress Trotsky brought the Mezhrayontsi into the Bolsheviks and was elected with Lenin's full support onto the Central Committee. Times were still hard, premises and records had been destroyed resulting in a temporary disorganisation. It wasn't till early August that Pravda restarted publication.

Lenin tried to prepare the Central Committee for the new political conditions that he felt existed and the need to prepare for an armed uprising. Out of the 15 present 10 voted against his prognosis. Alarmed by the CC's prevarication he argued the next day "The people must know the truth ‑ they must know who actually wields state power"..."power is in the hands of a military clique of Cavaignacs (Kerensky, certain generals, officers, etc), who are supported by the bourgeois class headed by the Cadet party, and by all the monarchists, acting through the Black Hundred papers".


Cavaignac, the French War Minister in the provisional government after the February revolution of 1848 had led the bloody suppression of the Paris workers in June. As Lenin had prophesied, the counter-revolution now sought its own solution, through the person of General Kornilov.

Kornilov, who was noted as having the heart of a lion but the brain of a sheep, reflected the extent to which the pendulum had swung to the right. Insisting on the death penalty and the shooting of deserters, he also dictated to Kerensky a ban on meetings at the front. This, together with disbanding revolutionary units, and an end to the power of soldiers committees was a recipe for once again restoring bourgeois "order" at the front. Taken with the death penalty for civilians, martial law and the banning of strikes on pain of death, it was the programme of counter-revolution.
Although Kerensky was happy with this, he was also conscious of his own position and was wary of Kornilov's longer term plans. The Cadets, sections of the officers and the bourgeois were actively preparing a coup d'etat that would finish off the Provisional Government.

Kornilov's attitude became ambiguous towards Kerensky, then provocative, and on the 24th August he formally declared war on the Provisional Government. Ordering his troops to march on Petrograd he boasted about how he would deal with the revolution. Kerensky and the Mensheviks realised they couldn't defeat the reaction without the Bolsheviks, in the same way that in the July days they couldn't defeat the Bolsheviks without the Generals.

The government issued guns to the Red Guards and eventually even approached the Kronstadt sailors. These sent a delegation to visit Trotsky in his cell to ask his advice. Should they support Kerensky against Kornilov, or fight both? Trotsky advised them to postpone their reckoning with Kerensky. At the same time Lenin was arguing that the Bolsheviks should use Kerensky as a "gun rest" against Kornilov.

United Front

This was a united front, a movement where different political tendencies could march separately but strike together against a common enemy. The Bolsheviks offered the Menshevik and SR workers a united front. They maintained an independent position, against Kornilov, but gave no support to the Provisional Government. In the process they revealed the weakness of the leaders of the reformists and of the government. But also, side by side with the Menshevik and SR workers they demonstrated that only the Bolsheviks could effectively fight the counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks mobilised the workers against Kornilov using revolutionary methods. The reaction soon ground to a halt. The railway workers sabotaged the trains, the troops were engaged by agitators and even the "Savage Division", the General's shock troops made up of warlike tribesmen were addressed in their own language by Caucasian Muslims. The rebel officers were isolated and defeated, the Kornilov rebellion collapsed under the pressure of the revolution. Many officers were arrested by their own men and the most unpopular shot.

July and August demonstrate that revolution is a complex thing, the interplay of living forces, of men and women. It illustrated the combativity of the working class and the soldiers, but it also demonstrated the necessity of revolutionary strategy and tactics, above all the role of the Bolshevik party. Without the Party the July days could have been even more of a serious defeat. The reaction could have gained more ground. In reality the events after the July days illustrated the weakness of the reaction and the role of the reformists.

The Kornilov revolt gave a mighty impetus to the revolution and clarified the political situation in the minds of many of the workers. The struggle for the decisive majority of the working class in preparation for the taking of state power now took centre stage.